March. The view outside the window, now that the snow has mostly gone, is a study in depression - the world is grey and wet and muddy. The sky is overcast - the colour of dirty snow. There is nothing “mud-lusious” or “puddle-wonderful” about it. March is that month that is neither winter or spring. It’s quite simply - dreary. Bleak. Soul-destroying. Many Canadians book escapes to Caribbean islands. Others bury themselves in work, working-out, Netflix or NHL hockey games. Others visit local sugar bushes.
There are about 16,000 maple-syrup producers in North America. Make that 16,001. This year, my husband and I, who are lucky enough to live on a 100 acres of property which has a few sugar maples, decided to make maple syrup. From scratch. Our woods has a variety of trees - ash, cherry, elm, birch, and one huge old maple tree that’s likely the mother of all the other smaller maples. The tree with the tire swing. I like to believe that we were not the first people to collect its sap.
But I digress. Given the high tech nature of the industry today, we decided to keep it simple. Ten trees. Traditional bucket collection. A basic wood-fired stove.
After some initial purchase and preparation of buckets and hoses and spiles, we were ready. We (he) drilled a hole into each tree, and then inserted a ‘spile’ that essentially “taps” into the sap that is flowing from tree root to upper branches. Hence, the term ‘tapping’, which is also in keeping with the slow, constant drip, drip, tap, tap of the sap into the buckets. Hourly, we checked to see if it was ‘running’ and daily, we were awed by how much sap there was - the buckets were filled to brimming when the days were warm and the night temperature below freezing. Albeit, filled with what is about 98% water - sap contains about 2-5% sugar, along with a host of other good-for-you trace amounts of calcium, potassium and magnesium. You can buy bottled sap - it’s suddenly trendy - and it’s marketed as “maple water”, which seems generally true.
Indigenous People understood the benefits of sap as spring tonic, and they passed the concept to early settlers who celebrated the season because it was a harbinger of spring, after long, lonely snow-bound winters. There is less clear information as to how the process of reducing the sap to syrup came about. However, this is the next step.
So. My husband set up an old wood stove inside cement blocks. It looks primitive, but it works. In no time, we were “boiling down” - which is the process of reducing the sap to syrup. It takes approximately 35-40 litres of sap - which is a fair amount - to produce a litre of syrup. And the process of doing this involves heating the sap so that the water evaporates - nothing else is added - which is why the final product is called “Pure Maple Syrup”. No additives. No preservatives. Liquid gold.
Given our basic operation, and fear of burning the sticky stuff, we decided to finish the reduction process inside the house. Serious syrup producers would likely scoff - but serious syrup producers today use vacuum systems to suck the sap out of the trees, oil- fueled furnaces and reverse osmosis filters. Our operation resembles those images on the “Canadian Pure Maple Syrup” containers where there’s an idyllic log cabin, trees, horses pulling a sled, and a male with a yoke on his back. Granted, making syrup requires a lot of work. And fortitude. After the initial excitement of gathering the sap and the first and second days of “boiling down” - it becomes a ‘labour of love’. The evaporation process is rather like watching a big pot of water steam outside for hours, until deemed almost ready. It takes a certain kind of patience. And faith.
But, back to bringing it inside. We finished each batch on the stove, which meant boiling it for a few final minutes until the bubbles are uniform and slow to form. The aroma of maple filled the house. Suddenly, breathing was like inhaling candy, like smelling purity, like being inside a childhood memory. Like floating on spring.
Canadians get very excited about maple syrup. Visitors from other countries often take home a small sample. It’s quintessential Canadiana in a jar or jug. But the reward of making it from scratch is more difficult to explain. Of course, it has something to do with tasting the stuff - pancakes and maple syrup are synonymous with Easter and hope and spring. We smothered french toast with our own syrup and thought it tasted heavenly: earthy-maple-caramel that’s impossible to describe. And, there is the row of amber- filled jars on the kitchen counter. The first harvest of the season. Rewarding in itself.
But there’s more. Indigenous People called March the “sugar month”. They were right. Making maple syrup - tapping, trekking through the woods, boiling it down - is elemental. Basic. Simple. But that sweetness in our house each evening when we finish another batch is acknowledgement - that it will soon be April, and then May.