15 Mar Maple Syrup – The Ultimate Slow Food
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.
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.
While the boiling takes hours, the sap collection takes just as long, if not longer. Each bucket contains only a small amount of 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.
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.
Jo Marie’s property has so many trees you can’t haul the sap in buckets. So, they have motorized gear.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.