Growing up in New York City, I had to wait till I joined the Boy Scouts and went camping to learn to recognize maples. But, I did not make the connection between the tree and the product of its sap for many years. Pancakes came with syrup in a bottle that was mostly corn syrup. I don’t think in those days that I connected the tree and the syrup at all.
When I first came to New England around 1964 or ’65, I was gifted with a small box of maple leaf-shaped candies made from maple syrup sugar. I rather gracelessly ate them all in about ten minutes. But it wasn’t till I went to Maine that I found out what real addiction was.
In Portland, I met a Coast Guard petty officer who’s family owned a “sugarbush” in northern Maine. Chris, like some drinkers, was always equipped with a small silver flask, except his contained maple syrup. Where other people might use sugar, he used syrup. He also used it medicinally with rum or whiskey. If his ship were about to deploy to Station Charley or Delta, he’d make sure that his mother and father shipped enough for the deployment. One of Chris’ uncles was a Samsonite ( no not a suitcase). He followed a sect that encouraged members never to cut their hair. They also followed rather simple rules for diet and medication. One winter, Chris’ uncle came down with a bad cold. He treated it by moving his bed next to the window and sleeping with his head outside the window, believing that the winter cold would cure a cold. That night the sash cords in the window snapped, and uncle wound up with a very sore neck. However, he claimed that the cold went away, and he treated the sore neck with plenty of maple syrup. This was related to me in a dead-serious tone as Chris made some excellent rum/maple toddies for a cold I had developed. I can attest that, for that evening at least, my cold improved dramatically.
Gradually I became syrup snob. I liked the deeper amber grades with the stronger flavor and eschewed the fancy grades the tourists bought. While working on the Smithsonian’s Festival of Folklife in 1988 I spent considerable time in contact with folks from Massachusetts who made the sweet stuff. We had a syrup evaporator set up and everyday watered down syrup so we could demonstrate how syrup was made.
Soon after this, I was gifted with a few spiles – the spout you stick into the tree. It’s been a downward trend since then. Now, as winter wanes, I begin to watch the highs and low temperatures to begin calculating when I should tap my trees. Where I’m located, the traditional date is right around Saint Valentine’s day. But, with the seasons in an uproar, I’ve set taps as early as the end of January – and gotten some very dark ambrosia! You want the temperatures to go up in the day and then plunge at night. Around the time the tree frogs start singing and buds open, the season ends. As at the start of the season, so too at its end: a matter of considerable variability.
Next time you complain about the cost of good syrup, consider how much energy goes into boiling the sap into syrup, and how much labor goes into making it. If you are in a syrup producing area, visit a sugarhouse.
Like most home producers, I boil at my house on the stove. I tap a few huge maples on my property that grow on the verge of the woods. They get lots of sun, and when I pour the sap into the boiler, I can already see the sugar shimmering in the sap before It boils. We produce several gallons for home consumption; I could push production, but we don’t need more.
I am adding a video on the process that I made a few years ago. If you decide to try, this it’s labor intensive and avoid doing it in a kitchen with wallpaper – unless you were interested in stripping the walls anyway.