You'd have to be a sap to believe that we're done with winter just because it's spring according to the calendar. This was the view from Bide-A-Wee on the first official day of spring, 2009. And it looked like this the next morning:
But by mid-morning the fog had burned off, and the snow was all gone by afternoon. As evening came on we were standing around in T-shirts watching maple sap boil down over a wood fire. Winter, spring, and a taste of summer, all in 24 hours or less! Theater of the seasons, you betcha!
Let's skip the traditional seasonal designations, and just say: It's sugaring time. In the woods on our Wisconsin land the birch, aspens, and oaks predominate, but we have a few nice-sized maples, and we were eager to have a first try at tapping them. Here below, our "sugar bush." You can see the sophisicated gathering equipment--pickle buckets from our local burger joint, various jugs that were cluttering up the basement, camping water containers, pots and pans.
We were fortunate to have recently made the acquaintance of Teresa Marrone and her husband Bruce Bohnenstingl. Teresa is the author of Abundantly Wild (which I wrote about earlier this year ) and several other books. She didn't literally write the book on home maple sugaring, but she did write the article, in the recent Minnesota Conservation Volunteer magazine of the Minnesota DNR (that article is written for kids; just my speed!). Bruce and Teresa tap two trees in the front yard of their south Minneapolis home, and get enough sap to boil down for a few pints of syrup in a good year. They showed us the basics, which are pretty...basic. Drill a whole in a big enough tree, smack a spigot in, hang a bucket.
The only really tricky part is boiling the sap down to syrup. It takes around 40 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup. That's a lot of water to dispose of; you don't want to do it in your kitchen, unless you like the idea of life in a sauna. A wood fire is traditional; a good-sized propane burner is more efficient, and results in less ash in the syrup.
It hasn't been great sugaring weather so far this year, at least not in our little corner of Wisconsin. It was cold through the middle of March, and then when it warmed up, it got too warm, often not dropping below freezing at night--the cycle of cold nights and warm days is what really gets the sap flowing. So far we've managed to gather enough sap for exactly one-and-a-half pints.
Hey, look, we made maple syrup! We are very, very pleased with ourselves.
It is also possible to make syrup from birch sap, and we're looking forward to trying that, as well. Birch sap is not nearly as sweet as maple, so it requires a lot more boiling down. It's also a completely different type of sugar from that produced by maples: maple sugar is sucrose, exactly the same as table sugar; birch syrup is mainly fructose. I was really surprised to learn that. Anyone know the reason these two trees produce completely different kinds of sugar? This is not a rhetorical question, or a quiz--if anyone out there knows the reason for the difference, I'd love to hear.
There are other ways to take advantage of maple sap without all the rigmarole of reducing it to syrup. This New York Times article describes the rituals of maple-tapping time in South Korea. These guys drink sap by the gallon, and having tried it myself, I can understand why--sap straight from the tree is cold and clear as tap water, slightly sweet, a touch woody, extremely refreshing.
Look for maple-inspired recipes here in the weeks to come.
Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw