Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Sweetness, Toil, and Smoke

The sugaring season, days of sweetness, toil, and smoke. It's great when it starts, maybe better when it's over. Coming to the end of our second season now, I realize it's a bit of a compulsion. Partway through I wind up asking myself, is this really worth it? The hauling, by hand, of heavy jugs of sap from the north end of our property, where the maples are, to the south end, where sits Bide-A-Wee; the cutting, hauling, splitting of wood; the expense of all that wood, and the tending of the fire, and the smoke in your face, day after day, and what do you get in the end, a gallon or two of syrup?

But if you're someone who's just a little fanatical about getting his food as close to the source as possible, and more than that, making the most of local treasures, well, how could you pass this up?

Concentration, distillation, that's what's at the heart of it. The thing that is fascinating and compelling about it is exactly what is also, at the end, somewhat disheartening--you start off with this vast amount of clear liquid, cook it for hours, and hours, and hours, watch it gradually take on color, sweeten, go from barely sweet water to a viscous, fragrant, indescribably sweet, and, to me, incomparably delicious nectar. How great and amazing is that? And at the same time, you go through...all that, as above, to wind up with...a little sticky sweet stuff, that now fits into a few pint jars? How depressing is that?

But it's deceptive. A little maple syrup, of course, goes a long way. And has magical properties. A couple of teaspoons in a vinaigrette makes a dressing that has people going back again and again to the salad bowl, though they couldn't say why. A glaze on a pork belly, or a duck breast, then exposed to applewood smoke and gentle heat for a few hours makes the best cured meat in the world.

And it's not bad on pancakes, or french toast. Or in a
cocktail. So, you know, I guess it's worth it.

We haven't come up with the perfect evaporation system, but I'm pretty pleased with this sort of Snuffy Smith-looking moonshiner's contraption, bunged together of cinder blocks and pieces of metal "repurposed" from some dismantled piece of farm equipment we found in the North Woods near the maples. I'm going to keep it, refine it, for a summer cookstove, add a grilling station adjacent.

And now, speaking of concentration, here's what you start with. These three containers of five, six, and seven gallons.

And then two more, given scale here by 60-pound, four-year-old griffon Lily. (Isn't she cute? She's turned out to be just a beautiful dog, and sweet as can be, a maniac out on the land, rarely
stopping unless we make her lie down, all day long; the only problem is she's unconscionably moist, and cannot control The Terrible Tongue. But I digress.)

That's, let's see, close to 30 gallons of sap. Imagine your refrigerator filled with 30 one-gallon jugs of milk. Imagine then reducing that over heat until you have less than one gallon, about three quarts. Or, as we see here, five gallons sap, one pint syrup.

Dinner one night at the cabin was slices of that just-smoked pork and duck, some plain steamed jasmine rice, and sweet-and-sour chard made with our syrup and apple cider vinegar. The chard dish was a keeper. Recipe to follow.


Sylvie in Rappahannock said...

I doubt that we'll ever make maple sugar. It's fun to read about it. We get ours from Pennsylvania, north enough to grow sugar maples - although they are a few specimens around us, it's not something people do here (in Highland County at the border with West Virginia where it's colder, they do though...)

yes, please, tell us about the Swiss chard.

el said...

*I* would say it's definitely worth it. Really. It's got so many fun elements going into it: the timing, the hauling, the fire and smoke, and then of course the resulting yumminess.

It's funny you should mention the path to your jars of enlightenment, and the point at which you scratch your head and ask if it's worth the bother. I find this to be true of every little thing I do in this journey of making our own food. I guess what helps is to have so MANY projects that are about as intensive and have as little active return that you get used to it after a while. I mean, don't you remember canning your first batch of tomato sauce? You grew what you thought was an IMMENSE bunch of fruit and then it reduces to nearly nothing.

I guess what I am saying is the destination is fine but the journey is mighty fun too.

Trout Caviar said...

Hi Sylvie: With our warming world (don't tell Mr Limbaugh I said that), it seems that we're getting into marginal territory for sugaring, even here. Both this year and last, the weather turned unseasonably warm in the midst of the syrup season. I have my office window open this morning, no foolin'. Much of New England, I've heard, had a rather poor season this year. I don't want to seem too pessimistic, but...well, we'll enjoy it while we can.

El. You are right. Of course. You're a lot more enlightened than I am. (No snark intended; I really think that you are. I do tend to get a little twisted up in results.) It is as much about the process. And the learning: For example, turns out I drilled a hole in a black oak tree this spring, thinking it was a maple! The state forestry guy who walked the land with us recently wised me up. No wonder no sap came out.... One other thing I learned is that it's not something you should do alone. The one long day I put in without Mary, that was what had me questioning my sanity. But even then, I mean, would I rather be sitting in a cubible? I'm terribly spoiled.

The results, also, are great. Looking at my little collection of bottles and jars this morning, I'm absolutely glad that I did it.

Cheers, ladies. Thanks for writing~ Brett

Trout Caviar said...

I wrote "cubible" up there. That's a funny word, er, non-word. Cubible, cubible.... Meant to write "cubicle...".


Luanne said...

Fascinating...and inspiring. Good work. It's worth it.

aesthetigeek said...

It turns out there is some extra benefit in using maple syrup over other kinds of sweeteners:

The tree sends out its defenses when you slash it and those defenses work for you too (but the research *was* funded by maple syrup partisans).

Jason B said...

I just started sugaring last year (I'm out west in Young America). It was the trial run - I got three spiles, some clear tubing and I modified some old 5-gallon pails (basically, I drilled a hole through the cover and stuffed the tube through). I got about 10 pints from the three sugar maples in my yard and learned some things along the way (I learned not add sap continually as it cooks down, as the constant re-heating gave the syrup's color molasses hues). I was hooked, and wondered how I could have squandered such a resource - right on the lawn, even!

This year, I tapped the same three maples and expanded to some silver maples, use their sap as an adjunct if the sugar maple flow was slow. However, I got to those too late (about 3/17), as their sap had a vegetal, buddy taste that was unpleasant. So I only used the sap from the three sugar maples once again.

I tracked the amount of sap taken and syrup produced. I collected 39.5 gallons (I was dissapointed by the low flow) and wrung out 234 oz. of syrup (a bomber short of 2 gallons). The sap/syrup ratio made up for the lack of good flow days this year!

Suffice to say, the end product makes it worth it, though, I totally agree with you, I'm glad when it is over because at peak flow it demands a measure of vigilance, because cool storage options wane as the month goes on.

Question: how much variance do you have in your end product? I've had pale pilsner gold to amber to reddish to, in a few cases, that typical Log Cabin color. I wonder if humidity plays into it, as the lighter colors happened on drier days where the sap cooked down much more quickly and was exposed to the heat for a shorter period). Or is it just natural variability in the sap itself?

Trout Caviar said...

Thanks, Luanne. It is worth it, really, and each year I'm sure it will get a bit easier.

aesthetigeek (I'd like you to know I typed that correctly first time without checking!): Interesting article, though as you say, one must consider the funding. I also wonder how much syrup one must consume to see a real health benefit. I can say that humping 40-pound containers of sap from one end to the other of our 20 hilly acres has really whipped me into shape! But the pay back is in the taste, in the end.

Thanks for writing~ Brett

Trout Caviar said...

Jason: Thanks so much for sharing your experience. From the dates you mention it appears we may have gotten a late start this year--although I think we started earlier than the previous, and we are a little farther north.

We're still working out various logistics, and since we don't live full-time where are trees are, that adds a layer of difficulty.

Our trees apparently are mostly red maples, by the way.

That's amazing that you got nearly two gallons from your 39+ gallons of sap. I find mine coming in very close to the 40:1 ratio.

How do you tell when yours is "done"? I was going by temp, but then fell back on taste, drops on a plate, and "mouth-feel"--if it tastes, looks, and "feels" like syrup, it's syrup.

I also wised up on not adding sap continuously this year. Though I have to say I don't really mind the slightly "cooked," or caramelized flavor some of last year's syrup had.

I would need more experience, and better observation of what the hell I did differently, to speculate about what affects the color of the finished syrup. Last year I did several distinct batches, and saw quite a range of color. This year, not so much.

Thanks again for writing. Fire up the griddle, now it's pancake time!


Patrick said...

Nice to see a Snuffy Smith reference - I miss that old comic! Do you put your duck breasts in the smoke of your evaporator?
And, do you ever cook with the sap before it's syrup? I think a sausage poached in diluted sap would be extraordinary! So would lots of other things; I'm thinking of lots of different vegetables.

Trout Caviar said...

Hi Patrick: Yes, good old Snuffy Smith, and Barney Google! I did feel like I should be kicked back in my rocking chair, shotgun in lap, lookin' out fer revenooers.

For the bacon and duck in the blog, I set up a crude smoker--just a grate covered with a small Weber lid--adjacent to the main fire, and kept some coals on the edge of it for a few hours.

I've had the same thought about uses for not-quite-done syrup. I used some in a glaze for some pork we grilled at home. Next year I'll save some out for further experimentation. You'll have to freeze it, I think.

Cheers~ Brett

Jason B said...

Ratio: Yes, I was very pleased with the 22:1 ratio: I was expecting the usual 40:1 I often see when reading about sugaring, so approaching the 15:1 ratio (some articles cite that as a best-case scenario) was a pleasant surprise. When I hit the silver maples next year (and a box elder I've identified in a grove), I'll probably see the 40:1 norm.

Doneness: Adhering strictly to the 219°F guideline (though I'd hasten calling my candy thermometer accurate)would produce a syrup that would be thin, watery, and doomed to fail the mouth-feel test. I've found better success using a tip from the Heavy Table article last year on sugaring, Teresa Marrone's "spatula test". I have a flat-faced spatula in a Cool Whip container full of cold water. I dry it off and dip it in the boiling syrup, lift it out, and watch for "sheeting" - that is, the drips from opposite ends of the spatula slide toward and merge in the middle then fall as a thin sheet off the edge of the spatula. It if just drips off like water, I wash off the spatula, put in in the Cool Whip dish, and test again (the spatula needs to be cool when dipping).