Thursday, March 25, 2010

Making Maple Syrup: Fabulous, but Not Flawless

The plan was set. We would tap four trees using the sap buckets found via Craig’s List at a sugarhouse in Williamsburg, Massachusetts. The plan was not flawless. We had waited until late fall, after the leaves were off the trees, to identify the sugar maples. I’d like to think I know a sugar maple when I see one, but the crowns are high off the ground in our section of the Green Mountain National Forest, and the tree forms are altered by overcrowding. Bark and fallen leaves were our only clues. Going back to those trees on a 44-degree day in March, we hoped for the best and let loose with a borrowed cordless drill. The sound of a drip has never been less annoying. We may not have tapped a maple, but whatever tree we tapped first was ready to give what sap it had.

Our first tapped maple tree

At the end of that first day, just before dark, we headed to the buckets and found each one about one-fourth full. We didn’t need the Storey Country Wisdom Bulletin (Making Maple Syrup by Noel Perrin) that was serving as our sole source of advice to tell us that we did not yet have enough sap to boil. We strained what we had and stuck it in the freezer to avoid any spoilage. Day two was similar. The sap collection was modest but enough to require a cooler with ice placed in the yard to hold the day-one collection so that fresh sap could take its place in the freezer. Eating our way out of the freezer filled with winter soups and, okay, gallons of ice cream would have helped with storage capacity. We didn’t do that. As I’ve mentioned, the plan was not flawless.

After another day of collection, we had all that our cooler and freezer could handle. What we didn’t have was a pot to put the sap in or a fire pit over which to place a pot if we did have one. We set off in search of equipment. Our first stop was a shop featuring used furniture and household stuff on the main floor and antiques and collectibles on the second floor. We thought we might find a giant turkey roaster, which is just the type of thing you see at such places unless you really need one. We didn’t find what we were looking for, but we did find something. That very heavy, more-costly-than-a-used-turkey-roaster something was a giant copper pot. The thing is 15 inches in diameter and 11 inches deep and has a long handle on one side and a closed handle on the other. I looked it up online. The handle names the manufacturer: Wrought Iron Range Company, St. Louis, MO.

As it turns out, the pot was made in the late 1800s or early 1900s and stands a chance of fetching us many times our investment should we ever choose to part with it. We could buy a wagonload of syrup for what that pot is worth, but that’s not the point. Besides, I wasn’t online to check the value of the pot. I was online in an effort to figure out just how much syrup cooked in a copper pot with a few small spots of copper oxidation peeking through the tin lining a person would have to eat to suffer the consequences of copper poisoning. I’m still not sure, but we decided to chance it.

Copper pot with blocks of frozen sap over our makeshift stove

Now, the stove. Passing up a cute little woodstove for sale at the antique store, we borrowed a stack of old pavers and the grate from a gas grill from a friend and headed home. We set up the operation in the muddy driveway because there was too much snow on the ground to put it anywhere else. It was a nifty thing, although the structure of it made adding wood to the fire a bit of a challenge. Nifty, not flawless.

The boiling day arrived. The Storey bulletin refers to boiling the sap overnight. That was not going to happen. There might be an occasion that would make it fun to pull an all-nighter, but standing in the driveway waiting for the mud to freeze under our feet was not it. So the boiling day started at 6:30 in the morning and by 7:30 we had frozen bricks of sap dumped into a copper kettle over a hot fire. Rounding out our sugarhouse of sorts were two folding chairs and mugs of hot coffee.

Once it was melted, we figured we had about six gallons of sap. It boiled, we fed the fire, and we stirred with a wooden spoon as directed. The first sampling tasted just like a wooden spoon, and we were convinced that we had tapped ash trees. We decided to persevere and by 2:30, the pot had about an inch of sap in it. The time was right to move the operation inside. Once the pot was on the stove, we watched and waited and stirred and skimmed foam. And you know, it started to smell a bit like maple syrup in the house. And the sap started to turn an amber color. And the next sampling tasted like the very best maple syrup ever made. We were ecstatic. Temporarily.

The sap boiling on the indoor stove — almost maple syrup

The Storey bulletin is very clear about how to determine when the sap has become syrup. The liquid needs to reach a certain temperature and needs to form an “apron” on the end of a horizontally held spatula. I don’t know what to say except that our candy thermometer and spatula are apparently defective. The syrup did not get to temperature, nor did it form an “apron” at the end of the spatula. It did, however, start to look suspiciously thick about two seconds after it looked absolutely perfect.

We quickly put a coffee filter over a jar and attempted to pour the syrup into the jar. It didn’t really pour so much as it formed a glob on top of the filter that was not going to seep through any time soon. We ripped off the filter and spooned what we had into the jar.

We spooned the "syrup" into the jar.

According to the Storey bulletin, sediment will sink to the bottom of the jar overnight, and the syrup can then be poured off the top. The next day the sediment had settled throughout our concoction; there would be no pouring of any kind without help, which a bit of time in the microwave provided. Once it was warmed, we poured it over pancakes. By throwing them back like we were speed-eaters in a high-stakes contest, we got the pancakes down before the rather granular liquid turned to a candy coating. It was fabulous. Not flawless, but fabulous. We’re going back for more buckets.

Posted by Sara Bonthuis. First-time tree tappers Sara Bonthuis and Pat Sullivan moved from the suburbs of Washington, D.C., to Stamford, Vermont, in 2007. Sara is a writer, photographer, and landscape designer who has recently become a Vermont Master Gardener Intern and a driver for Berkshire Organics.


Emily said...

Great post! I was laughing the whole way through. I've always wanted to try making maple syrup. When I was a kid, my friend's family used a sort of sugar water that I think you get after a only boiling it down half way for all of their sugar. It was amazing!

Melanie Jolicoeur said...

This is hysterical! It may not have poured smoothly, but I'm glad your end product was tasty, after all that effort!

Bernadine said...

It tasted good, that's all that matters!