March 3rd, 2016.
At some indefinable point toward the end of February, or early in March, you sense a shift in the light and even when the air remains cold, often bitterly cold as it is this morning, there’s a hint of spring to come. I’ve never been able to define what causes that, maybe it’s just that the sun is higher in the sky, but suddenly, subtly, it seems that winter will not go on forever. And you look up and you see that in the topmost branches of the highest trees, the new leaf buds are just beginning to swell.
And it’s time to tap the sugar maples that once lined many of the roads in Maine, especially the old country roads—that sight of stone walls and sugar maples is a compelling one. So we clean out the collecting buckets, check the hose lines, buy new spiles for tapping the trees, and then, as the sap slowly, slowly, slowly, drips into the buckets—which, more often than not are clean plastic gallon-sized milk jugs.
Large operations work with long lines of tubes leading from tree to tree, a continuous feed that runs the sap back to the sugar house and avoids the need of a personal tramp through the woods to collect it. Small guys like my friend Ike Johnson (who’s actually quite tall) collect each bucket or jug by hand, emptying them into a larger container that gets hauled off to where the sap will be boiled down. This is fine in years
like this one, when there’s almost no snow left in the woods, but darned difficult if you have to trudge a path through heavy, crusted snow from tree to tree. The advantage, though, is that you might be able to haul the big container through the woods on a sled, much easier than dragging a cart or negotiating a tractor around stone walls and tree roots.
When do you do this? When nighttime temperatures are below freezing and daytime temps start to rise rapidly above freezing. That’s when the sap begins to flow. Ike says around 40º is ideal, and you pray for sunny days or at least no rain to invade the sap and drench the harvester. Some days there’s no sap at all, and at other times you might get a gallon or two from a single tree.
Ike has a contraption down his woods road that would do Rube Goldberg proud. In that, he’s not much different from most of the other hands-on, home-made, seat-of-the-pants operators that I’ve run into. A lot of the equipment was salvaged from the dump and some of it came from E-bay. The big oil tank in which he builds his wood fire is a rusted contraption that lies on its side with holes pierced through the top to contain three big rectangular sap pans that had an earlier life on a restaurant steam table. He builds up a big fire inside the oil tank and feeds it throughout the day, while he slowly adds more sap to the pans as it boils down, skims the scum off the top, keeps an eye on the fire, and does the New York Times crossword puzzle.
Authorities say it takes 43 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup, meaning the syrup maker
must slowly boil away 42 gallons of water to arrive at syrup stage. That takes a long time, especially in what they call inclement weather. Ike has a cover for the whole contraption and a big old umbrella for his own protection when the clemency goes away.
The result? In Ike’s case it’s a miracle of flavor. He just brought me a small jar to sample: it’s dark, thick, full of the robust essence of maple. And to heck with pancakes, I am off to fetch a pint of vanilla ice cream to lavish fresh maple syrup all over the top.
If you want to cook with it, though, here’s a sauce from the Kenneth Roberts cookbook, Good Maine Food by Marjorie Mosser (she was the great Maine novelist’s niece and his secretary): For a baked ham steak: Put a thick slice of ham in a baking dish and cover it with a sauce made from 2 tablespoons of vinegar (cider vinegar, I would imagine), 2 teaspoons of dried powdered mustard, and ¾ of a cup of maple syrup. Bake it in a moderate oven for 45 minutes. That sauce, I imagine, would be very good, too, with any kind of roast pork or double-cut pork chops.
Thomas Jefferson summed up maple sweetening as well as anyone in a letter to Benjamin Rush, written in August of 1791: “I am led to expect that a material part of the general happiness which heaven seems to have prepared for mankind, will be derived from the manufacture and general use of maple sugar.”