I'm doing the last boil of the sugaring season today, cooking about 10 gallons of birch sap down to what will probably be around a pint of syrup. It has been a long, satisfying, at times grueling, few weeks--tapping the trees, awaiting the sap run, at first reluctant, then rising to a spate; checking the taps, hauling the sap, cutting firewood, and boiling, boiling, boiling. All this in the midst of one of the most remarkable stretches of springtime weather...I was going to say "in memory," but I don't think anyone remembers such a season, as such a one has not occurred before, not in my time.
That's because water has been falling from the skies--mainly as snow--just as steadily as it has been pulsing up through the capillary systems of the maples and birches. We thought that the April of storm after storm was remarkable, until we experienced a historic May weather event, a two day-plus storm that dropped around 16 inches at our house. The Twin Cities record for a May snowfall was around three inches--and that record held, because the cities were on the rain side of the line. Three inches is not a lot of snow, but then, May is supposed to be a spring month. Well, so is April, for that matter.
|May 4, 2013, Ridgeland, Dunn County, Wisconsin|
As the snow melts water flows down our hayfield hill, around the corner of the yard (and right across where I dug our garden last year, bad planning), and pools up in a low spot north of the garage. From this holding area it then trickles out to form a perfect little brook past the lone pine tree behind the garage, and out into the pasture. It's a good distance from there to the corner of our property at the crossroads of the county road and our town road, where tiny Hay Creek makes a hard southward turn, but some of those snowflakes from our hilltop surely make it to the creek, which meanders through some very pretty countryside about 15 miles, crow-wise, and who knows how many crooked stream miles, to the Red Cedar River.
The Red Cedar takes a more direct route south and empties into the Chippewa River south of Downsville (in summer we ride our bikes on the state trail that follows the Red Cedar down to this confluence). The Chippewa in springtime is a mighty river, at some spots it can seem as broad as the Mississippi; until, of course, you see the Mississippi where the Chippewa enters, a shining, stirring inland sea--Lake Pepin--from which greening bluffs, grander than castles, rise on the western shore in Minnesota.
And the Mississippi, of course, it goes to the Gulf, where a warm wind picks up water molecules from the salty surface, and perhaps on some strange May day (or it could be March, December) a driven jolt of northbound air carries that laden breeze back up the course of the great river in an anomalous weather system that sets up a stationary line of torrential snow from Iowa into southeastern Minnesota, across west central Wisconsin, dropping nearly a foot-and-a-half of snow on a hilltop in northern Dunn County. Did some of those snowflakes start here, years ago? Seems crazy, but it's possible. Clearly, I'd like to think that they did.
All this water coming down, water gushing down, the gathering of the streams, the boiling of the sap, it's had me thinking about accretion, and reduction. All that water from the skies, gathering on our hilltops, in the woods, in our yards--in everybody's yards, forest, fields. It comes down drop by drop, or flake by flake. When you get down to where the Chippewa joins the Mississippi, you wouldn't have thought just a few snowflakes, a few raindrops, could amount to all that. If all you see is the mighty flow, I think you're missing the bigger picture, which, oddly, only comes into focus when you start with a snowflake.
Accretion, it's kind of an odd word, but the one which, to me, sums it up (no pun intended). Things gathering together, things piling up. "Any gradual increase in size, as through growth or external addition." It's how every little bit helps, and every litter bit hurts, how the extra Christmas cookie, one more beer, or french fry, amounts in time to...self-loathing. A garden is an accretion, created one seed at a time, then one leaf at a time until, there it is, a verdant expanse. Since I've started cutting wood for next winter (and that wet, heavy snow has given me lots of broken limbs to cut up for the pile), I see the woodpile as an accretion, one split, one stick at a time until, by the time the frost returns (think not of that...), we'll have a winter's worth of heat, and cooking fuel, and dark nights' cheer stacked up to see us through.
A good novel is an accretion of detail and incident and image, all adding up to something marvelous, and all compiled one word at a time. And running accretion backwards, in an abstract but very, very meaningful way, that's the phenomenon of moments slipping by, it seems to me, of time past and not to be regained--Proust can search all he wants. More positively, what is life but an accretion of moments, experience, memory? Whatever it is that's piling up, it's all happening in time, so a snowflake falling is a tick of the clock, and as the meltwater drips out of our ephemeral pond, it's a sort of liquid hourglass--though we won't be turning it over.
With the wet snow coming down, the saps coming up, we started to feel inundated from all sides. When the snow stopped and the sun came out (it did, a couple of times in the last six weeks), things seemed better, but in another way it only sped the spate--the water flowed down the hill, the creek filled to the banks; the sap gushed from both maples and birches. I couldn't keep up with it. I dumped gallons and gallons of sap on the ground--I don't know why it felt wasteful, it was going to wind up there eventually, and the trees had all the sap they wanted.
Meantime, with all that accretion going on downstream, I was going against the tide, a few gallons at a time, engaged in the frantic race toward reduction--take 10 gallons of maple sap, 20 of birch, 80 or 160 pounds of liquid, turn it into something you can hold in your hand. Pour on your pancakes, use to flavor a salad dressing. Drop by drop, in wisps of steam, or through gentler evaporation in the final reduction on the woodstove overnight, as the fire gradually died down, I was sending all that water back into the air. To harvest an essence, a distillation. Some sweet stuff. Here taking away everything extraneous, which is in fact all you could really see was there, the watery part, to leave something of which we only had the vaguest insinuation, that fleeting sweetness on the tongue. An act of faith, in its modest way.
The pros at this business probably philosophize less and boil a lot more than I do, so in this bountiful year for sap I've seen syrup offered at $25 a half gallon, cheaper if you buy more and bring your own containers.
I recorded the first drops from our maple taps on March 25. With the back-and-forth spring going mostly back, it was a couple of weeks before I had enough sap to boil. Thanks to Twitter, I'm able to report with utter accuracy that our first boil was on April 5: "My half-assed homemade sap contraption did a fantastic job on its maiden boil." Thus I tweeted. It went pretty steadily from there, reaching full spate by mid-April, wearing out my willingness to spend the day bathed in wood smoke by about the third week of April.
At which time I drilled an inch into a big birch, and sap came pouring forth. Here we go again.
It's pretty easy to see how people started making maple syrup. Although maple sap is clear as water, still it tastes faintly sweet to the tongue. To the squirrels the sap that dries on maple trees, naturally flowing out from cracks in the bark or broken branches, definitely has a sugary appeal, and perhaps that's how aboriginal people figured out that there was something good here, from observing how the squirrels lapped it up. Then there were probably a few steps involved, and a lengthy evolution, before getting to maple syrup and maple sugar, but the end result was reliable and delicious.
It's much harder to understand how birch syrup came to be. A birch tree in a good year can provide an astonishing amount of sap, but when you taste it, it doesn't seem sweet, containing only about half the sugar of maple sap. Perhaps I should modify that: It doesn't taste sweet to me. It doesn't taste sweet to the contemporary American palate, bombarded with sweetness from every side, sugar hidden in just about every processed food from salad dressing to crackers. But maybe to a purer palate, way back when, the sweetness of birch sap was detectable, and desirable. It you had a lot of birch sap, and firewood, and time, it was probably worth it.
As my last batch of birch sap boils away, with a pint of finished syrup in the fridge, I'm asking myself if it was worth it, and mainly coming down on yes, now that it's nearly over. It's a fascinating product, unlike anything I've tasted before. It's dark, dark, dark--more like molasses or sorghum syrup than even grade B maple. And I'm not sure what accounts for this, but it is quite acidic, too, with a spiciness dominated by a menthol or wintergreen note, and a smokiness that may literally be from wood smoke wafting across the surface of the pan as it cooks. But also, perhaps because of that acidity, it has a fruitiness, almost a wininess, that maple syrup lacks. At first taste, I must say, it's not immediately likeable--it takes you aback and sits you up straight. But part of what I like about it is that sense of extremity--that it is difficult to make, not easy to like, and that it requires some thought to determine how best to use it.
Here's what I've done with it so far, and how these preparations turned out:
Birch-cured whitefish gravlax. I followed the method I used for maple-cured lake trout gravlax (in the book), but: then I forgot about it in the back of the fridge for over a week. Oops. I was afraid it would be spoiled; instead, it is just very, very salty. But the flavor, other than the oversalting, is good, and the texture is excellent, which I attribute to the birch syrup. So I'll use it as I would salt cod, probably make something like a brandade, the Provencal dish of salt cod pureed together with potatoes, lots of garlic, olive oil or butter. Maybe I'll work in some other seasonal things like ramps and watercress.
Pork chops marinated in birch syrup, ramps, and Sichuan pepper. A couple hours ahead of cooking I brushed the chops with a couple of tablespoons of birch syrup, added chopped ramps, salted and peppered liberally, also a good sprinkling of roasted, ground Sichuan pepper (hua jiao). On the grill, medium coals, 10 to 12 minutes total--excellent, and the interesting thing was, the birch syrup didn't burn as another sweetener would. I'll look into this phenomenon further.
As a salad dressing component, birch syrup (you don't know how many times I've typed bitch while writing this post, and had to correct...) is superb, especially with assertive greens like watercress. Since it brings both sweetness and acidity, you don't need vinegar or lemon juice in the dressing. I've simply been mixing the birch, some sunflower oil, a wee bit of mustard, salt and pepper--terrific. Shown here as the base for pan-fried trout with sauteed ramps and lardons, duck fat potatoes.
You experience the land and the season in a different way when you take up sugaring, and I'm as glad to have done it as I am that it's over. I probably won't make birch syrup every year, and with three gallons of maple syrup in the pantry, I likely won't have to do as much next year.
On the other hand, I recently saw a link on Twitter to an article about making syrup from black walnut sap. Oh, why did I have to look...?
Text and photos copyright 2013 by Brett Laidlaw