The Moon of Boiling or the Sugar Moon, the time in March when the Native Americans made maple sugar, has come early this year. After a warmer, drier January than usual, we got as much snow in one week earlier this month as we often get in a whole winter. Now, just past Presidents’ Day, it’s melting fast, with daytime temps in the 40s. Fortunately, it is still below freezing at night, I say ‘fortunately’ because these above- and below-freezing swings mean the sap is running. The maple trees think it’s spring.
I was in the hardware store the other day to pick up chicken feed, and I wandered over to look at the maple sugaring display they set up every year. There’s a section of a real tree with a recirculating pump built into the back so that a trickle of water flows continuously from a metal spile, or tap, into a collecting bucket, reminding us all that one of the greatest gifts of these northern woods is there for the taking. Old sugar maples still line many of our roads, a parade of stout ancestors spaced across front yards on both sides of the street. Many people tap a few trees and boil down the sap, keeping alive one of the important wild harvests that provided a sweetener much less expensive than imported molasses or cane sugar. There are also many commercial sugarhouses all over Maine. Most people do not know that Maine ranks second only to Vermont as a producer of maple syrup in the US. Canada makes us all look like small potatoes, of course, their iconic maple industry so important to the nation’s self-image and economy that they use the tree’s leaf as their national emblem and maintain the world’s only strategic maple syrup reserve. (And while we’re on the subject, I’m talking about real, 100% maple syrup here. It is not the same thing at all as the stuff marketed as ‘pancake syrup,’ which is just white sugar syrup colored with caramel and flavored, perhaps, with a little maple extract. That’s the stuff you get if you tap a telephone pole.)
I’ve never made maple syrup here at 2Dits Farm. Until a couple of years ago, one of my next-door neighbors did, however, and I used to buy a couple of quarts from him every year, plenty for drizzling over pancakes, stirring into yogurt, glazing butternut squash, and adding to baked beans. That neighbor has moved away now, and though I can still buy syrup at our local organic food co-op, I have a notion to try making it myself this year.
Just a small batch, I hasten to add. According to the information I’ve read, it takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. I have neither the number of trees nor the quantity of patience I’d need for that. I figure maybe 10 gallons to make a quart, and if I only get a pint, that will be fine with me. It’s the experience I’m after.
At the hardware store I equipped myself with two plastic spiles, a couple of collecting buckets with lids, and a box of paper coffee filters. I knew I already had a 7/16″ drill bit, some clean gallon milk jugs, an old canning kettle and a fresh bottle of propane for the grill at home. Oh, and I have also two maple trees of sufficient diameter–twelve inches–to tap. One is a sugar maple, I’m pretty sure, and the other a black maple. Any maple will yield maple syrup, but the sap of the sugar maple is sweeter, making for a more flavorful product. Native Americans and early colonists boiled down the saps of birch and box elder, too, for syrup and sugar.
Now, as I understand it, I start by drilling slightly upward-slanting holes a couple of inches deep on the south side of the trees, one per tree because my trees are fairly young, only forty years or so, and don’t have girth enough to take more taps than one. Then I gently hammer in the spile, being careful not to split the wood because sap will ooze out there, too, and just make a mess. The bucket is hung from the hook on the spile, the lid (supposedly) keeps out inquisitive squirrels, bird poo, and bits of bark. In late afternoon before things start freezing up for the night, I empty whatever sap has run into the clean milk jugs to store in the fridge until I have collected enough sap to boil down.
Depending on how much sap I get, the boiling will take place either outside on the propane grill, or inside on the stove, preferably on a day when I can have a window open for the steam and keep a careful eye on the walls for condensations. The grill outside is probably a better choice, now that I’m thinking about it. I have read astute advice that if the syrup suddenly boils furiously and rises up in a tidal wave that threatens to overtop the kettle, touching the surface with a bit of butter held on a stick will make the threatening tsunami subside. (It had better be a pretty damned long stick, that’s all I’m saying.) The same authority adds that a piece of bacon will do the trick, too, a piece of lore which has a charmingly lumberjack camp flavor to it.
Anyway, once (if) the sap turns golden in color, I can transfer it from the outdoor kettle to a pan for finishing on the kitchen stove. Then I boil it until it forms a syrup, cool it a little, and bit by laborious bit, run it through the coffee filters to get any sediment or ash out. Then I’ll pour it into canning jars for keeping.
And then, oh, my! Blueberry pancakes with homemade maple syrup!
And after that, I have a hunch that I’ll be buying maple syrup at the winter famers’ market from now on and happily paying the fair price they ask for all that labor.