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Cape Cod Maple Syrup

February 13, 2012

One year ago on Valentine’s Day, I was leaning on a fence and having a nice conversation with my pig, when I noticed a small commotion of bees on a nearby maple tree. From some injury to the bark, sap was dripping down the trunk, and our honey bees were eagerly lapping it up.

Ah! The sap run! Within a day or two I had 25 taps in the red maple trees, and a week later 15 more went in. Though I had studied designs, I hadn’t gotten around to building an “arch” – or maple syrup evaporator – out of an old oil tank. Instead, I quickly collected cinder blocks from around the property and made an unrefined evaporator. There was room enough for three nine-by-thirteen pans and a few pre-warmer pots for fresh sap. I set up 18-gallon storage bins in the cool basement to hold fresh sap, made up a filter system to keep the nasty bits out, and waited for cold nights followed by warm days. I didn’t have to wait long; soon sap was flowing and the backyard sugaring commenced. (Scroll to the end of the post for a photo-essay of our sugarin’.)

There is something magical about making your own maple syrup. Maybe it suits my Quebecoise ancestry. First, there is the mingling with the trees, which we like. They begin to take on their own personalities as you work with them – the stingy and the generous; the young and the old; the damaged and the strong; the beautiful and the hard-looking. There is the excitement of watching gallon jugs fill up, sometimes twice a day when the run is good. Checking progress from a bedroom window is a lark. Then, too, there is the sweet labor of carrying five-gallon buckets filled with sap through the red maple swamp and up through the woods; five heavy trips once or twice a day. The buckets are re-filled and lugged once more from the storage area to the evaporation station.

There the real sorcery begins. We stoke a wood fire in the inefficient, open arch and bring cauldrons of sap to a frothing boil. The block, the racks, the pans, and even the air becomes blisteringly hot, making every stir and pour-off hazardous. Oven mitts are no match for this heat; I burned through three or four in as many hours. We stir the foam down with a long-handled spoon for hours and hours until the liquid becomes amber and the bubbles grow large and glassy. The air is filled with wood smoke and maple steam, an unforgettable and intoxicating fragrance. Months later, with a single sip of this syrup, the day and night of smoke and sweet steam will enrapture you again, and the whole experience will come rushing back like a momentarily forgotten dream.

This kind of syruping is hard work for long hours with a ridiculously tiny yield. We evaporated a total of approximately 160-gallons of sap for a yield of a little more than one gallon of syrup. Each of our boils lasted around 13-hours, and we burned just over a cord of split, seasoned firewood. The wood investment alone makes our gallon-or-so of syrup worth at least $300, but I scavenged the wood, so paid only the cost of chainsaw and splitter hours and gas – and labor. By the end of our three-week syruping stint, our block arch disintegrated into powder. The grill racks we sat our pots and pans on were so badly bowed from heat we thought they would break and dump a dozen hours worth of hot work into the fire.

Yet, I loved every minute of it and it has been difficult to reason myself out of doing it again. I’ve revisited oil-burner and 55-gallon drum plans for more efficient evaporators. I thanked August’s Hurricane Irene for dropping 10 huge locust trees on our land, thinking I could put away enough wood for two years of home-heating plus a cord or two for syruping. I came up with some better ideas for keeping sap cold and preventing spoilage. I reviewed notes and thought I could maximize our take by tapping only those trees that performed well and had a high yield of syrup.

Then a friend picked up a little gift for me at a discount shop in my town. It was a thoughtful gesture, and I expressed my sincere gratitude, but deep down I saw it as something between a sign from God and an eight-ounce slap in the face. Eight-point-five ounces, to be exact, for all of $5.99. The label said pure maple syrup, if we can trust it, bottled in New Hampshire. I looked up McLure’s and learned the family long ago ceased tapping their own trees for the brand and focused on bottling syrup sourced in New England and Canada. They got into honey, too, and bought Moorland Apiaries, then the whole shebang was bought by Dutch Gold Honey of Lancaster, PA. I distilled these facts into one important point: this syrup is not from a single sugarbush, or stand of maples from which syrup is made, but is rather a blended product gathered from trees all over the great, cold north. Much like honey that is blended from far-flung apiaries foraging in disparate environments, the resulting homogenized product lacks nuance and individuality. It still tastes pretty good, but it lacks the smoke, the extreme sweetness, the viscosity and the memories that come in our bottles.

freshly tapped tree - water jugs had to be tied on with long twist ties

Mama's helpers check some experimental taps

block arch - block on bottom "front" turned for air intake, blocks were removed from top "back" for exhaust.

least evaporated sap on the right and most on the left, fresh sap warming in the pot

sap getting some color, flame up in the background

Tony's hand-carved long handled spoon was just the perfect thing for the hot stir

blocks begin to crack after two evaporation sessions (24-hours of burning)

Tired of sloshing shallow pans in the dark, we finished in pots. That black soot coating on the exterior took serious scrubbing to remove.

good example of very high (too high?) flames

sampling syrup at the indoor finishing stage makes little ones very happy

For information about tapping maple trees for making maple syrup, check this link out.

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