Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Maple Sugaring, Early Spring in the Northern Woods

Maple Sugaring
Originally uploaded by michelle1975.

March and April are the height of "sugaring off" season in these parts, the time when the maple sap harvest and maple syrup and maple sugar production are at their peak, the time when the numerous sugar shacks that dot the countryside go into overdrive, serving up massive quantities of traditional backwoods breakfast fare (in varieties both authentic and ersatz). Up until the late 19th century, maple sugar was the most highly prized maple product and a regional staple. This situation changed with the introduction of cheap cane sugar to the area. Even though maple syrup is now the principal product, terms such as "sugar shack" and "sugaring off" still indicate the original state of affairs.

One North American sugar maple can produce gallons of sugar- and syrup-bearing sap every year, if tapped at the right time, without being seriously affected by the loss. This fact was well known by indigenous tribes in the region and this knowledge was then passed on to early European settlers, who both improved upon the method of achieving syrup and sugar and systematized production. For decades this system consisted of taps and buckets, but all but the smallest maple syrup producers have since further rationalized the process, using networks of plastic tubing to increase yields and cut back on labor. It used to be that sugar makers would have to "struggle up snow-covered hillsides to collect each day's run by hand" before toiling "far into the night in the sugarhouse, boiling off the sap into syrup," keeping in mind that it takes a legal barrel of sap (30.5 gallons) to produce a gallon of syrup. The whole enterprise was "grueling, but when the first pitcher of rich, new syrup [arrived] at the dining table, along with a batch of fresh doughnuts, it [vindicated] the sugar maker's age-old claim: 'By Gory, after all is said and done, sugaring is fun!'" This is obvious in the print above.

The best years for maple syrup are those with long, hard winters followed by a springtime with lots of temperature fluctuations--it's the sudden rise in temperature that really gets the clear maple sap flowing. This year was not one of those years. Winter wasn't all that long and hard, and spring came on steadily with very few temperature fluctuations. In fact, we kind of got caught off guard--we were seduced by how pleasant the transition from winter to spring was this year, we were seduced by the lack of freak springtime snowstorms. We've had our fair share of Bilboquet's tire d'érable ice cream, as well as new crop maple syrup and fresh tire d'érable from Jean Talon Market, and we experienced Au Pied de Cochon's sugar shack-chic a few weeks ago, right at the heart of the season, but for the first time in a few years we haven't made it out to the countryside for our annual "sugaring off" feast. There's still time, I guess, but I'm already focused on our garden.


PS--When you come from Quebec, you get to be pretty serious about your maple syrup. My parents had a friend who had relocated to California from Quebec. One day she went to a local supermarket and bought some "100% Pure Vermont Maple Syrup." She took it home and when she tasted it she could immediately tell that it actually wasn't 100% pure, and that it had probably been cut with corn syrup. The next day she took it back to the supermarket and demanded a refund. The manager assured her that this maple syrup was in fact the real thing, but when she continue to protest he asked her, "How can you tell (it's not 100% pure)?" She replied, "How can I tell? I WAS BORN WITH MAPLE SYRUP IN MY VEINS!!"

[sources: American Cooking: New England by Jonathan Norton Leonard and the Editors of TIME-LIFE BOOKS; The Penguin Companion to Food, Alan Davidson; personal experience]

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