Folks who know the history of our farm often talk fondly about 'the old sugar bush.' Today when we walk through that part of the woods, the stand is largely made up of very, very old and very young maples. But like the Goldilocks story, there are some maples that are 'just right' -- just right for tapping, that is.
We're big maple syrup fans and we love its woodsy sweetness on -- and in -- everything from pancakes to baked goods and even coffee. Other than honey (also a family favourite!) and agave nectar, it's the only sweetener that occurs naturally in a liquid state. It turns out that our reverence for this sweet treat is many, many, many generations old. While its exact origin is unknown, Native Americans have many legends about the discovery and early usage of maple sap.
One tells of the Earth Mother, Kokomis, who made the first maple syrup and allowed it to pour freely from the trees. Her grandson Manabush, who worried that if the syrup could be obtained so easily people would become lazy, climbed to the top of the maple tree and showered it with water, thus diluting the syrup to sap.
This is just one of the fascinating pieces of maple lore that I learned reading Tim Herd's book, Maple Sugar.
While the book is small in size (144 pages and measuring 6.5" x 7.5", only a bit bigger than a CD case), it's packed full of interesting tidbits about the history, early sugaring methods and uses of maple syrup.
There's also a chapter on tree identification, with notes on the top six (out of 13) species tapped by hobbyists, and a fascinating overview of the four seasons of the sugar bush. Amateur botanists and dendrologists will appreciate the brief, but interesting, chapter on the "Secret Life of Trees."
Rounding out the book is a chapter on the how tos of commercial maple syrup production, with gorgeous photos of rustic sugar shacks housing modern-day evaporators (interesting juxtaposition, I'd say).
The second-to-last chapter is geared for the Do-it-yourself and provides step-by-step instructions on identifying trees, finding equipment, tapping and of course, sugaring. The last chapter provides a number of simple recipes that showcase this springtime bounty.
Despite the book's small size (it's more a primer than manual), it was the DIY chapter that really caught my eye, especially the suggestion that each tap on a healthy tree may produce 10 gallons of sap (or more) during the month-long season. As it takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup (1 U.S. gallon = 3.785 litres), just four tapped trees (one stile per tree) could potentially keep our family in delicious maple syrup for a few months!
That's what makes this book so inspiring -- it makes you want to run out and start tapping trees right now! (Like I need more inspiration -- it's more hours in the day that I need.)
I approached the idea with Lucas and while he usually provides a moderating effect on all my crazy "we could do this!" suggestions, he, too, loved the idea.
So last week we took the kids for a walk through the 'old sugar bush' and marked a few trees. (Note to self: this is much easier to do when the leaves are on the trees!) Tomorrow I'll go to our local farm supply store to pick up a few metal spiles and buckets, and then I'll go through our stockpile of food-grade buckets in the barn and find (and sterilize) several for collecting the sap. We're still trying to find some kind of container to boil down the sap (Herd suggests a large shallow pan, though if anyone has an extra cast iron cauldron kicking around, drop me an email!), but we've agreed that we're going to do this old-school, over an open fire. That's the plan, at least.
Local farming friends tell us the sap is already flowing and many commercial-scale Ontario producers kick off the beginning of maple syrup season with a "First Tapping" ceremony this weekend. While we usually mark the arrival of spring with a visit to a local sugar bush, this year we're excited to be starting a new tradition deeply rooted in our backyard.