If you own a sweet-tooth and maple syrup is at the top of your Like-it List, this may be your favorite part of the year. From late-February to early-April is Maple Sugaring season. From south-central Quebec, down the St. Lawrence River Valley, east through central New England, back west to New York, and even farther west to Indiana, it is time to tap the maple trees for their sap.
For those with discerning taste, this is when the wait begins. Everyone is asking about the new “vintage.” Will the flavor be like the 1968, 1983, 1997, and 2022 syrups; thick and sweet? Or, will it be like 1999 and 2012, the sour years?
It all begins in the fall of the year when maple trees store a type of starch in their roots and trunk that during the winter turns to sugar. Then, that sugar rises in the sap during the late-winter and early-spring. Beginning in February “syrup-makers” tap a tree by drilling tiny shallow holes into the trunks of the tree and inserting hoses about the size of a pencil, then collecting the sap in buckets nailed to the bark.
The process is quite simple, but a lot of equipment is needed. Ideally most maple syrup makers have a sugarhouse – far back and away from the home they live in. It is much less of a big deal if the sugarhouse burns down. Fire (heat – lots of it) is the catalyst that turn sap into syrup. The sap is boiled in huge pans set on white-oak wood fueled fires. White oak burns hot, and to get the sap to boil the temperature must reach 219° (degrees). The water in the sap will boil-out at 212°, but more heat is needed to boil the sap which causes it to thicken.
Maple syrup making was first practiced by native North Americans, but immigrant Europeans quickly learned the technique and refined the steps to increase the yield. Commercial production was immediately successful; remnants of sugarhouses and a variety of bottles and other containers have been validated to the 1740s. Today, Canada is the world’s largest producer, doing about 70% of the world’s demand. The states in the northeast, with a slight edge to Vermont, equally produces the balance.
Manufacturers rank their products into four classes: “Golden,” “Amber,” “Dark,” and “Very Dark.” The Golden is the lightest in color and taste. It is the result of the earliest tappings and is used as a sweetening for ice cream, yogurt, and berry-desserts. The flavor of Amber syrup is much richer. Amber is the syrup most of us like when we are sweetening pancakes and waffles. It is truly the most versatile and plentiful of the four grades.
Dark syrup has a red and brown color. Its taste is quite robust and it is often used in porridge making and baking. Dark syrup is also the perfect starter for the preparation of barbeque sauces. Very Dark syrup is the variety that comes at the end of the season. The flavor is heavy, but it is just what the baker needs for spice cakes and cookies.
Does it need to be said that the politicians have managed to wiggle their way into the maple syrup business? In Canada, by national legislation, syrups must be made entirely from maple tree sap and the sugar content must be at least 66% by volume. In the United States the words “almost entirely” appear in maple sugar legislation, however in states like New York and Vermont, their state legislatures have gone deeper into the process and have passed laws with very stringent definitions.
The one general characteristic of maple syrup that most everyone agrees on is the flavor agents in the syrup, but the chemistry is still, after hundreds of years, a mystery.
Sugar in the Snow Festivals
For at least the last century or more Americans have celebrated a variety of Maple Syrup Days on Saturdays from early-February to late-March. These seasonal celebrations often include parades, sleigh rides, sled races, concerts, and open-air dinners or picnics. If you have not yet experienced a “Sugar in the Snow Festival” or “A Sugaring off Party” your social experiences are incomplete.
The essential ingredients for a Vermont Sugaring-off Party are: “Sugar in the Snow,” fresh brown donuts, scalding-hot coffee or black or orange-pekoe teas, and sour dill pickles. Yes, dill pickles.
“Sugar in the Snow” is often prepared with crowds of people watching. The process begins somewhat earlier when a blazing hot fire is built in a firebox in the middle of the sugarhouse floor. A good “sugar-man” will welcome his audience with an announcement of the current temperature, “It’s up to 200 degrees!,” he’ll say. Then, “210,” “215,” and then degree by degree until the boiling maple syrup reaches its sweetest temperature at 235° Fahrenheit.
When the “It’s ready!” announcement is made the cheers rise from the crowd and everyone makes a mad-dash for the snow pans. The snow maidens (the sugar-man’s helpers) ladle the boiling hot syrup onto the beds of freshly packed (tamped down) snow and often each ladle full will be given the name of a child who is anxiously waiting for this taste from heaven. Because of the extreme difference in temperatures the hot sugar hardens quickly into brittle, amber-colored pools against the white snow.
As fast as it congeals, children (of all ages) take to the concoction which sticks to the tines of a fork or the bowl of a wooden spoon. It is simply delicious! It is rich and smooth and sweet, but not sickening sweet. When your tastebuds are finally overcome by the sugar it is time for the pickle and donut. Then the hot coffee or tea tops off this truly unique flavor experience.
Certainly, the maple syrup and pickle seem incompatible but they are truly the only flavors on an American menu that completely cancel each other. It is unknown who was first to learn that these flavors would work together, but millions of happy people thank him every Spring.
With a little experimentation into the correct ratio of pickle to syrup, anyone can create a pickle dish that has a delightful crunchiness. Alone you wouldn’t achieve much at all from this except a good palate-cleansing. Is there any worth to that? Probably not, since what glory is there in tasteless food?
Tim Van Staden is a travelling professor of human sciences. He recently completed a two-year project in Scandinavia.
Could it be that postcard collectors are also total adventurers? When you finish reading about chariots with sails it will be fine to admit your envy of those having such fun on a beach along the North Sea.