Maple Syrup – The Ultimate Slow Food

Maple trees in Ontario, tapped for making maple syrup

15 Mar Maple Syrup – The Ultimate Slow Food

Maple trees in Ontario, tapped for making maple syrup

Jo Marie’s maple tress tapped for sap.

When I was nine, we moved to a house with two huge maple trees in the side yard. Years before, someone had tapped the trees and left the spiles in the trunk. Intrigued by the metal protruding from the bark, I asked my mother what they were for. When she explained, I blithely suggested we make our own maple syrup. Without even pretending to consider my request, Mom said no. At the time I thought my mother — the woman who baked bread, made pastry and even created hand-dipped chocolates for Easter — was being incredibly unreasonable.

She wasn’t. I now understand why.

Earlier this week, I watched maple syrup being made using sap from the trees pictured above (any many others, not shown). This is not a commercial maple sugar farm. It’s not a small-scale, carefully crafted educational display for school kids. This is Jo Marie’s* 100-Acre woods just outside the city centre. Every year, she invites George Brown culinary students to her farm to see, first-hand, how maple syrup is made. I came along for the fun. As did Jonsie, Cooper and Missy —three dogs who were totally convinced we couldn’t do the job without them. It was so much fun, Jonsie couldn’t keep the smile off his face.

Jonsie, always ready to help

Jonsie, always ready to help with any and everything.

I realize I should learn to install a slide show. Maybe later. I make no promises. Until that happens, let’s just call this post a photo essay. I’ll explain as we go. DIYers, please note, this isn’t a how-to piece. I am not giving advice or providing the nitty-gritty details to make your own. This is just a glimpse into what it takes to make maple syrup — assuming you have a big lot, plenty of trees, tons of brush, an 8′ x 3′ pan (yes, that’s feet and not inches), cinder blocks and a whole whack of patience.

Jo Marie calls maple syrup the ultimate slow food since the work begins almost a year before the sap runs. In April, they begin collecting brush and keep at it until they’re ready to collect sap. They need two huge brush piles, each about 10′ tall. You can see the kind of brush used in the photo below.

The large green containers are filled with sap. (Jo Marie refuses to call them “garbage pails”, even though this is what they are designed for originally. These are dedicated to maple sap, so I will call them BGSBs (Big Green Sap Buckets) for short.)) All of the BGSBs are — or were — full to the brim. It will all be boiled down over the course of a few weekends.

Maple sap to be boiled down.

Pails of maple sap. Jack shows us how full they are.

While the boiling takes hours, the sap collection takes just as long, if not longer. Each bucket contains only a small amount of sap.

Jack helps collect sap

Jack helps us collect the sap.

Each bucket fills drop by drop.

The flow depends on the weather. This year the sap flowed quickly. I timed the drips. One every two or three seconds.

Sap drips into a bucket

Sap collects one drop at a time.

Even though the sap looks like water, it tastes only faintly of  maple. It’s hard to believe this clear, almost tasteless liquid boils down into the dark, distinctively-flavoured syrup we pour on pancakes.

Maple sap collecting

Sap has the colour and consistency of water.

Jo Marie’s property has so many trees you can’t haul the sap in buckets. So, they have motorized gear.

Sap tank

Bringing in the heavy machinery. Cooper herds.

The small sap buckets are emptied into bigger buckets, which are then emptied into the tank, which is then driven back to the boil point where it is syphoned into the BGSBs. And we have barely begun the process.

Maple sap poured into a tank to be driven back to the boil area.

Maple sap is poured into the large tank. It will be driven back to the boil area.

The sap is stored in BGSBs until there is enough to boil. If it’s cold, the sap will freeze and you have the luxury to time to collect lots for a boil. But if the weather is mild, the sap can ferment, which means it’s wasted. Fortunately, the nights have been cold enough to keep the sap chilled.

Once filled with sap, the BGSBs are too heavy to lift . Here, a student ladles sap into a smaller bucket. This, too, takes time.

Transferring sap for boiling

Transferring sap for the boil.

Pouring sap into the boiling pan

Pouring sap into the boiling pan.

Once enough sap has been transferred, the BGSB is gently emptied into the boiling pan. Even half-full, it’s so heavy with sap two strong adults are needed. As a small, not-so-strong person, I just stood by and took photos.

Jo Marie’s pan is about 8′ x 3′ and sits on cinder blocks. The brush is stuffed under the length of the pan to ensure even heat distribution.

Commercial operations boil sap around the clock, but her family makes batches on weekends. They start the fire at about 8 AM and finish the syrup about 3 PM. This happens every weekend until the sap runs out. The season is usually three to four week’s long, but depends heavily on the weather.

Maple sap boiling off

Maple syrup boiling away. That white stuff is steam from the sap, not smoke from the fire.

The trick is to keep the sap boiling, but not let it burn. This can happen as quickly as whipped cream can turn to butter, so someone has to be on hand to at all times to watch the syrup.

Maple sap boiling

Maple sap boiling in the pan.

Even when the syrup is “done,” it’s not done. Because it’s cooked outside in the open air, the syrup is full of bark chips, ash and other particles. It must be stained through a thick filter.

Filter for maple syrup

The thick, filter for maple syrup.

And when it’s been filtered it’s still not done. The syrup must then be boiled down again on the stove top. The ideal temperature is 104°C (219°F), so you need to keep an eye on the syrup.

Why not just boil the sap inside and save yourself the trouble of collecting wood and straining ash? Jo Marie did that the first year she attempted maple syrup. It produced so much steam and moisture her ceiling collapsed.

Another year, the shelf holding 60 to 80 mason jars of her homemade syrup collapsed. Not a single jar survived the crash. I’d have given up, but Jo Marie is made of stronger stuff and this is the result.

Homemade maple syrup

A jar of Jo Marie’s homemade maple syrup.

By the time the syrup is in jars, each gallon takes 40 to 50 hours of work. Jo Marie calls this a “hobby.” I call it a labour of love.

This year’s batch isn’t finished yet, so I can’t tell you how it turned out. Based on previous results, Jo Marie’s method produces a richer, slightly smokier syrup that puts the supermarket brands to shame.

I’m not about to make my own syrup. But I have a deeper appreciation for what goes into it. Waffles will never be the same again.

*Jo Marie Powers is a co-founder of Cuisine Canada. She’s one of the most amazing women I have ever met. If she offers you one of her famous maple sugar candies, take it. You will experience a tiny bit of heaven and history all in one bite.

Update: Even more photos can be found on my Tumblr.

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19 Comments
  • Amy Proulx
    Posted at 12:24h, 15 March Reply

    Making maple syrup with Jo Marie is a joy. Actually, Jo Marie embodies joy. I went a couple years ago to her George Brown day, and had the most marvelous of potlucks made by the talented students. I’m so glad you were able to share this story with us.

    • Charmian Christie
      Posted at 15:31h, 15 March Reply

      We had a potluck afterwards, too. The food was all local/sustainable and made by the culinary students. Plus a neighbour came and shared the long, long history of the farms in the region. That’s another story in itself!

      Glad you had a Jo Marie Mapling Experience. Everyone should.

  • Jeanette @ This Dusty Kitchen
    Posted at 13:10h, 15 March Reply

    My parents used to tap the 20 or so 100-year-old maples that circled our property. It was definitely a small scale operation and yet, my parents managed to stock our basement shelves with jars of maple syrup that lasted us a few years after they stopped the yearly exercise. The thing about making maple syrup is that it’s not actually that labour intensive, but it’s a long process that requires an incredibly amount of time and patience and more than a little know-how.

    Thanks for sharing your experience! It was a fascinating read.

    • Charmian Christie
      Posted at 13:16h, 15 March Reply

      Your parents made maple syrup? I’m so impressed. SO impressed. Did it taste different from the store brands? I’m dying to try Jo Marie’s syrup, but it’s not done yet.

      Thanks for sharing your story. I bet your property was beautiful with 20+ mature maples. And the memories? To quote Mastercard — “priceless!”

      • Jeanette @ This Dusty Kitchen
        Posted at 12:59h, 27 March Reply

        I don’t think it tasted any different than store brands. It may have had a slightly different thickness and colour (determined by how long its boiled and the filtering process?) but maple syrup is maple syrup, one of the few products, I think, that hasn’t been messed with by the food industry’s need to make things last on the shelves longer. It already lasts! There’s no need to change what already works. :)

        There is, however, something special about tasting something you have direct connection with. Maple syrup is no different!

        • Stacey Martin
          Posted at 06:45h, 28 March Reply

          I just moved into a new home which has many beautiful maple trees on the property. I boiled sap from a few of the maple trees in our front yard for the first time ever this spring and I agree with you that’s there’s definitely, “something special about tasting something you have direct connection with”. Much like the food you grow in your own garden.

          I rarely leave comments on blogs but I felt compelled after reading your post.

          I have to say that to compare imitation syrup to real maple syrup is, well, just not right. The store “stuff” is nothing more than maple flavored corn syrup. Pretty gross if you think about it. Nothing in comparison to real maple syrup that has been boiled down to pure goodness. Not only is it organic, it has many health benefits too. I just doesn’t compare anyway you look at it.

          • Charmian Christie
            Posted at 08:06h, 28 March

            Thanks so much for commenting, Stacey. What a thrill to make your own maple syrup from trees in your own front yard. I really envy you the experience. I hope you enjoy the last drop as much as the first!

            I agree with you about the imitation syrup. It’s nothing like the pure version. After reading all these passionate comments I wish I had maple trees to tap!

  • julien
    Posted at 13:39h, 15 March Reply

    The way that it’s made at home must make it taste unique. I wish I could try some homemade syrup! Are her syrups not sold to the local market?

    • Charmian Christie
      Posted at 15:23h, 15 March Reply

      I’m anxious to try the syrup, too. I had candies made from last year’s batch and they were amazing.

      Jo Marie doesn’t sell her syrup. The yield isn’t enough for market, but she’s very generous with friends and family.

  • Anne MacDougall
    Posted at 09:41h, 16 March Reply

    I also have had the wonderful experience of participating in the maple syrup experience at Jo Marie’s as well as the day with the culinary students from George Brown. It is a special treat to see her take such quiet joy in being able to pass on her knowledge and enthusiasm to others.

    • Charmian Christie
      Posted at 20:21h, 17 March Reply

      “Quiet joy” is the perfect description. You’re the second person to have tied that lovely word to Jo Marie. I wish I had used it in my post. That was the word I was searching for.

  • Cheryl Arkison
    Posted at 07:12h, 17 March Reply

    One day… One day… We can make birch syrup out here, I wonder if the process is the same?

    • Charmian Christie
      Posted at 20:22h, 17 March Reply

      I hear wonderful things about birch syrup but have never tried it. I assume the process is similar but can’t imagine birch trees producing the same amount of sap. I’d love to go birching someday. One day… one day…

  • Abby
    Posted at 09:47h, 17 March Reply

    This is real life! What a fantastic post. I’ve just found you via Pinterest, so glad that I did :)

    • Charmian Christie
      Posted at 20:23h, 17 March Reply

      Lovely to “meet” you Abby. So glad you followed through on the Pinterest tag. I’ll have to pop by Pinterest and follow you! Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  • chacha1
    Posted at 15:27h, 23 March Reply

    When I was a kid we lived in Missouri, Minnesota, and Wisconsin … we bounced around for Dad’s jobs in manufacturing. At some point we visited a sugar maple stand where they did some syrup. It was fascinating. And the smell!! I had forgotten that till reading this.

    Can’t help wondering … if sap accidentally ferments, couldn’t you distill it? Make some maple hooch? :-)

    • Charmian Christie
      Posted at 17:46h, 27 March Reply

      Maple hooch? Never heard of it, but it would make sense.

      Back in the days when maple syrup was essential to survival, I don’t think anyone let the sap sit around long enough to ferment.

      Right now, pure maple syrup is as expensive a spirits, so I can’t see anyone bothering to distill it for profit. But you do have me curious!

  • AZ
    Posted at 16:48h, 01 August Reply

    I don’t think your boil temperature of 104 degrees F can be correct. Water boils at 212 deg F at sea level. Even on Mt. Everest water would boil above 104 deg F and syrup would boil higher than the bp of water.

    • Charmian Christie
      Posted at 10:01h, 22 September Reply

      You are absolutely right. It should be 104C (219F). I have updated the information. Thanks for your keen eyes!!

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