I’ve been on a lot of field trips, including a visit to some of my Michigan neighbors who make wood-fired maple syrup.
I first met the Flemings when I bought some of their fabulously delicious red bell peppers at the Saugatuck Farmers Market a couple years ago.
I joined them as they tapped some trees in the woods on their farm.
I’ve been enamored with maple syrup since I read Miracles on Maple Hill, a charming story set in the 1950s. A must-read for nature lovers and fans of children’s literature.
But back to the syrup.
This strange so-called “spring” we’re having, which included a dusting of snow this morning, makes for a longer maple season as freeze-and-thaw cycles make the sap run longer.
Producers tell me when it goes from cold straight to warm, the sap comes all at once and then they’re finished. So in this case the crazy weather is an asset.
Maple syrup might be the North American continent’s earliest sweetener. Native Americans taught settlers how to make it, tapping trees with stones, then using bark to funnel the sap into birch buckets. It was concentrated by dropping hot stones into the buckets.
Today, the process is remarkably similar. At the first hint of spring, when a freeze/thaw cycles begin, sap comes up from the roots to nourish the branches. Trees are tapped with a drill, then plastic taps are “tapped” in with a hammer and a tube attached that resembles a medical IV tube. The sap runs into food-safe buckets, which get emptied into a larger bucket, then into a tank on the back of a truck. The truck is dispatched to the sugar shack, where the sap is pumped into a holding tank near the evaporator.
The evaporator could be considered a giant rectangular saucepan with thermometers and indicators to be sure it never gets to a simmer.
The sap, which tastes sweet but is a clear liquid like water, is warmed until most of the liquid evaporates, leaving a rich amber syrup. The syrup is then drawn off, filtered, graded, and then bottled for market.
It takes about 50 to 60 gallons of sap to make a single gallon of syrup, which gives you an indication of why the price is so dear - there’s a lot of work that goes into that golden amber.
And a little goes a long way.
My favorite way to enjoy it?
Drizzled over vanilla ice cream or stirred into yogurt. With all due respect to pancakes, waffles and French toast, for some reason the creamy/sweet combination is the ultimate pleasure for me. Here, I’ve strained whole milk yogurt to thicken it a little. Enjoy.
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