Friday, April 1, 2016

The Saps of Spring, 2016 Edition

March is a difficult month.  It promises spring, but often belongs equally, if not more so, to winter.  It makes you think of gardening, of growing things, but at our latitude all you can really do is pile potting mix into little pots, get the seeds of the earliest, cool season plants going—onions, leeks, lettuce, some herbs.   There are days of warm sun that tempt you to get out and till a plot, but when you turn one clump of frigid, sodden soil, you turn quickly to plan B.  Never mind, there’s always that minefield of winter-weathered dog treasures to clear, a perennial March activity that more or less sums up the spirit of the season….

Maybe this is why a lot of my March days since moving to the country have been spent drilling little holes in trees, gathering the cold, slightly sweet water that weeps out, and cooking it down to incomparable sweetness—tree syrups, both maple and birch, and even a bit of black walnut.  It’s nature’s little consolation prize for enduring these purgatorial weeks, equal parts reward and distraction.  Though sap season comes around every year, it’s always a little bit different.  And this year has been more different than most.

People on Twitter tend to get a little excited, you may have noticed if you frequent that world.  I think it’s the ability to communicate instantaneously with friends, acquaintances, and strangers alike, all across the planet, that tends to heighten reactions exponentially.  This year I saw a slew of ecstatic tweets proclaiming that the weather for the week ahead looked perfect for maple sugaring…in the middle of February.  But the trees weren’t looking at the daily highs and lows to decide how to proceed; no, the trees were still frozen solid.

I forget exactly which March Surprise this was; we had a few....

But it did transpire that warmish weather continued—there were days with record highs, with record high lows—and I did wind up tapping a few maples, as well as the big box elder (a type of maple) in our yard, and our one majestic black walnut tree, on February 21, because what the heck.  And within a few days I did have a little sap, emphasis on the little.  The trees ran sluggishly for about a day, then the weather turned seasonably cold again.  Six trees gave me about one gallon of sap, which didn’t take too long to simmer down on the wood stove into a half cup of syrup; and so began the season of passive, micro-batch syruping, which continues to this day, as I reduce another five gallons of birch sap on the woodstove and then on the range top.  I’m not going to wind up with a vast reserve of syrup, but then, I don’t really need one.  The birch, especially, is sparingly deployed, maybe a tablespoon or so at a time, in salad dressings and marinades, mainly for grilled pork.
Birch syrup on the final reduction.

With small amounts of sap—5 to 8 gallons at a time—I didn’t bother firing up the labor-and-smoke-intensive half-assed sap contraption I’ve used in years past.  Instead, since we’re still stoking the woodstove every day, at least in the mornings and evenings, I’ve been setting a hotel pan and our Big Blue Le Creuset dutch oven on the stove and letting the sap slowly reduce to a manageable amount, at which point I boil the dickens out of it on our kitchen range top.  You may wonder, Isn’t that a lot of humidity to be adding to your indoor environment?  Aren’t you producing great clouds of water vapor, steaming the wallpaper off the walls, and covering everything with a sticky film? 

Legitimate concerns, to which the answers are: yes, I guess it’s a fair amount of humidity, but things are generally dry this time of year, so we haven’t noticed any issues; and as we have no wallpaper on our walls, none to steam off!  Finally, no, our walls and ceiling bear no resemblance to a movie theater floor after being deluged with Mountain Dew during the kiddie matinee.  The whole idea, see, is that the sugary part remains in the pot as the water evaporates.  Even if some of the sugar escaped a furiously boiling pot, I don’t think it would go very far, the sugar molecules presumably being a good deal heavier than water vapor. 

The long and short of it is this:  I think it’s a myth, one which I myself may have helped to promulgate in the past, that cooking sap down inside has these undesirable side effects.  When I’m doing the fast, final boiling, I’ve got the vent hood running, a couple of windows cracked, and there’s no noticeable change in our indoor weather.  Also, I’ve kept checking the walls near the stove, the inside of the vent hood, for that legendary sticky film—none to be found.  Now, if I had a hundred, or even 40, 20 gallons to deal with at a time, I probably wouldn’t do it inside.  But with these small batches, it works fine.  It’s also really nice to get double duty out of the woodstove, heat for the home on chilly days, tasty syrups for the kitchen.

The Puddock hard at work, multi-tasking.

It has taken me a while, years, in fact, to start to feel comfortable using the birch syrup.  It’s completely unlike anything else I have in my pantry, so it didn’t slide easily into any particular niche.  People ask me what it’s like, and I can only give vague analogies or general descriptions that don’t capture the essence of the thing.  It’s dark, dark as molasses, and it has some molasses qualities, but it’s not thick—in its body, its “mouth feel,” it’s lighter and thinner than maple syrup.  And banish any thought that it’s like maple syrup just because it’s sugar that comes from a tree.  While maple syrup is composed of sucrose, like plain old granulated sugar, birch syrup is glucose and fructose (I think I’ve got that right).  The flavor of birch syrup is much…edgier.  There’s acidity to it, and often a little intriguing bitterness.  It’s very aromatic, with sweet, menthol, spicy, root beer type notes.  Really, if you’re interested in distinctive foods, particularly distinctive northern foods, you’ve got to try it.

If you have access to a few birch trees, it’s easy enough to get, as long as, you know, nature cooperates.  You tap the trees exactly as you would for maple syrup, drill a little hole about 1 ½” deep, insert a tap, hang a bag, bucket, what have you, or attached food grade tubing to allow the sap to run into a container.  Then when you have a quantity, you cook it down.  And cook it down.  And cook it down….  Because, the thing about birch sap:  it’s generally less than half as concentrated in sugars as maple sap.  So if it typically takes from 30 to 40 gallons of maple sap to produce a gallon of syrup, with birch we’re talking about a roughly 80:1 ration.  Breaking that down into the smaller batches I’ve been doing, 10 gallons of sap gave me one scant pint of syrup.  

Syrup assortment: the small, very light one at center front is black walnut.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again:  you can look at the numbers, even the relatively reasonable maple ratios, and think you get it, but until you actually do it, you can’t possibly understand.  Still, it’s worth it.  I go to a lot of trouble, tapping the trees, hauling the heavy sap down the hill (luckily I do get to haul it down the hill), cooking the sap down and down and down, but at the end I’ve got lovely local products to work with through the rest of the year.

And here’s a handy fact of nature:  the birch trees tend to start running as the maple run is coming to an end.  So if you have access to both kinds of trees, you can move your tapping equipment over to the birches when you’ve had your fill of maple sugaring, and the trees start to break bud, rendering the sap bitter and unusable.  Making syrup, especially birch syrup, is a labor of love, and a rite of the season, a perennial celebration of those immemorial cycles.  A lot of work and time, sure, but hey, it beats picking up dog crap….

Earlier reports from sap season:
 Sapped Out, 2013
The Sweetest Tree, 2013
Sweet Trees X3, 2015
Sweetness, Toil, and Smoke, 2010

How I have used birch syrup:

·        *  As a marinade for grilled or smoked meat:  it’s great brushed on a pork chop, which I then season simply with salt and pepper.  For some reason, the birch syrup doesn’t burn on the grill the way maple syrup or honey would.  Perhaps because the sugar composition is different.  I’ve also used it on grilled game birds, particularly woodcock.  And I’ve used it in the cure for smoked duck breast and venison with wonderful results.
Grilled red wattle pork chops in a birch syrup marinade; pork and birch have a delicious affinity.

*  In salad dressings:  just a teaspoon or two in a vinaigrette really makes its presence felt, and brings that distinctive, aromatic birch flavor to any kind of salad.

·         *  In cocktails:  1 teaspoon birch syrup, a few drops of lemon juice, 2 ounces Scotch, bourbon, or rye, stir it up, add ice, garnish with a lemon twist.  Or for the lemon substitute blood oranges in season for a cocktail I’ve dubbed “The Nasty Bruise.”  For a refreshing non-alcoholic drink, stir a couple teaspoons of birch syrup into sparkling water, add ice and perhaps a squeeze of lemon juice.

Those are the main applications I’ve found for birch syrup.  I’m having a decent year with the birch this spring, so I’ll have a good supply to experiment with through the year.  I repeat:  a little goes a long way with birch syrup.

Birch-Mustard Seed Carrot Salad

Two servings.  

1 large or 2 small carrots
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons yellow mustard seeds
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon birch syrup
1 small garlic clove sliced very thin
A bit of chiffonade leek or scallion green, optional
Salt and pepper

Peel the carrots and slice them very thin—1/8” or less.   A Benriner mandoline is handy for this—watch your fingers!

Heat the oil over medium low and add the mustard seeds.  Stir them around until they just start to pop, then remove from the heat.  Add the lemon juice, birch syrup, and garlic and stir well.  Pour the dressing over the carrots, add a couple good pinches of salt and a few grinds of pepper, and stir well.  Let the salad sit for at least a half hour or up to several hours before serving.  Sprinkle the optional leek or scallion greens over top just before serving.

Maple syrup variation:  in place of the birch syrup, use 2 teaspoons of maple syrup and ½ teaspoon of Dijon mustard--I haven't actually tried this variation, but I don't see how it could be bad.

Here’s a brief record of weather, phenology, and such since syrup season began at the end of February:

Feb 27 record highs
Feb 29 1st ½ cup maple syrup done
March 1, “brittle and chill” and the trees aren’t producing sap
March 4, 3 inches of snow
March 8 red-winged blackbirds back & a scant half cup of black walnut syrup finished from 56 ounces sap—that’s all for black walnut, it didn’t produce enough sap after that to bother with
3/10 snow’s all gone and Mary notes, looking out the kitchen window, “It’s not winter anymore,” to which I reply, “It’s not spring, either.  It’s mud season.”
3/10 cooked down a tiny bit of box elder syrup, “single source”….
Shrimp on the barbie, definite grilling weather
3/11 picked garlic mustard along the Rush River at Brush Cr Rd; grilled pork chops; summery
3/12 summery; dinner at Tina’s, I wear shorts
3/16? 2” rain, thunder
3/14 woodcock return
3/17 SNOW again, grass covered
3/18 snow gone
3/22 tapped birches and they were running; seemed pretty vigorous, but didn’t get much for a few days
3/23 SNOW again! 3-4”.
3/24 snow gone!
3/27 finished the last maple, moved over to birch
3/28 5 gallons birch mostly cooked down
3/29 another 5 gallons birch gathered, mostly cooked down; sunny and warm, in shorts again
3/30 It didn’t seem that there was much sap flow, but the eight birch gave around four gallons total, which reduced gently on the woodstove overnight
3/31 The house is starting to smell birchy with the sap on the woodstove getting right down there.  It’s raining now, but the forecast is for an inch of snow by the end of the day.  April Fool!

Text and photos copyright 2016 by Brett Laidlaw


Anonymous said...

I've found conflicting info online about syruping Birch. Some sources say each tree can only be tapped once in its lifespan; others have said it can sustainably and repeatedly be tapped, with no real risk of sickness.

What have you found to be the case?

Andy from Hudson

Trout Caviar said...

Hi Andy: I agree that the "literature" on tapping birches is pretty sketchy, sometimes contradictory. I've not seen anything about only tapping a tree once in its lifetime. Seems to me that would make any birch syrup production, commercial or hobbyist, unpractical. You would need SO MANY birch trees! So I've tapped the same trees more than once, but it's worth thinking about giving them a year or two off. It does seem that the tap holes heal both more slowly and less completely than with maple. I also should pay more attention to sanitation of my equipment. I'm learning new things each year, for sure. It's very seat-of-the-pants.

This is the best thing I've found online:

Happy tapping~ Brett

Carlie said...

This is so fascinating! I was nervous to try it with the four maples on our city lot for fear of making the walls candy coated....wish I'd tried it now. We've since moved away. What an exciting experiment to be trying other tree saps too! Thanks for sharing!