The Sweetest Season

row of tapped maples

Stepping over slowly melting patches of snow, I am out checking buckets.  I hope to be met by the satisfying sound of a steady drip.  It’s March in Vermont, the highest maple syrup producing state, and the sap is running!

This is the glorious, though frequently muddy, transition season between frozen-solid winter, and bursting-with-life spring. When temperatures are below freezing at night and a bit above during the day, the sap flows sometimes as much as 150 drops per minute.  I with buckets, larger operations with tubing, collect this slightly sweet liquid and boil it down to end up with “liquid gold” maple syrup. It takes somewhere between 40-50 gallons of sap to make just one gallon of syrup, but it is worth it.

maple sap drop

Once a maple tree is about 40 years old and at least 10 inches in diameter, it can be tapped during “sugaring season” – a period of just 4-6 weeks generally falling sometime between late Feb and early April.  By the time enough sap reaches the tips of the branches and they begin to bud, the season is over.

After collecting sap from the trees, a sugarmaker’s job is far from over.  Although we do tend to drink it instead of water, and have been carbonating it to make sap soda, most of the sap is condensed into syrup.  At home this can be done on the stove (get ready for a lot of sweet-smelling steam) or on an outdoor fire pit, but most sap is boiled down in an evaporator.

We have Native Americans to thank for discovering the maple trees’ inner sweetness. Several native legends tell of the accidental piercing of a maple tree and the use of that “sweet water” to cook meat. Early French settlers likely learned how to tap trees, boil it down to syrup and then dry it to preserve it as maple sugar from native communities.  Once a container to store syrup was invented in the 1860s, the most common end product switched from dried sugar to liquid syrup.

Sugarmakers use a grading system to classify syrup.  The lightest, labeled “fancy”, tastes most like sugar and was originally promoted as the politically correct sweetener since it was a slave-free substitute for sugar. Vermonters were generally left with the darker stuff, deemed “grade B”, which tends to sell for less. However, with a richer flavor and higher mineral content, I say, go for the bargain syrup.

For flavor and nutritional value, I often use maple syrup instead of sugar.  If you’ve never had maple syrup in your coffee or tea, over yogurt, oatmeal or ice cream, in glazes, salad dressings or baked goods, I really think you should. It contains fewer calories than honey or corn syrup and packs a good dose of vitamins and minerals including manganese, zinc, iron, calcium, potassium, magnesium, riboflavin and other B vitamins. It substitutes in equal measure in recipes calling for liquid sweeteners (honey, corn syrup or molasses) and can easily be used instead of sugar with a small adjustment for consistency by adding 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda for each cup of syrup.

Several recipes I use maple syrup in:

Besides the many pancakes which can be drowned in it, and meat that can be cured with it, maple syrup is also used in a popular detox program. It is one of four ingredients in “The Master Cleanse” or Maple Syrup Diet created by Stanley Burroughs in the 1940s. It became popular in the 1990s as a way to rid the body of built-up toxins, a quick weight-loss option and a way to clear out the winter layer and prepare for spring.

For more sweet information including recipes, visit the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association. If you’ve become inspired to try your hand at “sugaring,”  Tap My Trees is a good online resource for home and school-scale tapping information and supplies, and these books can help you on your way.

Cheers to the sweetest season and the welcome arrival of spring!

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