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.