Sweet Season

It’s the sweetest time of year when winter hasn’t yet lost it’s grip on New England and each day signs of spring appear. As the days get longer and the sun warms your upturned face, the trees are beginning to wake up from their sleep. The temperatures rise above 40 degrees fahrenheit during the day and then drop back below freezing at nightfall. When this fluctuation occurs, it’s Sugaring Season!

My introduction to Maple Sugaring was during a rained out ski trip to Vermont when I was a teenager. My friends took me to the local sugar shack outfitted on one end with state of the art equipment and the other end like a basement family room that has seen better days. The juxtaposition of the sparkling clean evaporator and shiny reverse osmosis machine not 15′ from an assortment of worn, stained and tattered La-Z-Boy’s set across from a old console television was quiet the scene. The sweet smell of hot syrup being drawn off and handed to me in a shot glass and then the absolutely delicious taste of it sliding down my throat was truly one of the best experiences of my life.

If you know anything about making Maple Syrup, you know it is a craft that requires a lot of time, labor and patience for a small amount of end product. With prices ranging anywhere from $35-$60 a gallon right now, sugar makers don’t have any problem selling all their syrup each year as those with selective palates won’t accept anything but the real thing. It can only be made 4, 5 or maybe 6 weeks each year in late winter/early spring before the season ends.

An elderly gentleman in Vermont sold me a bucket full of his wife’s Maple Sugar Candy cast-offs, dirt cheap. I asked him how he knew it was time to make the syrup. He answered, “I tell folk, take your honey out to dinner on Valentine’s Day and kiss her real good because you won’t be seeing each other for the next 6 weeks.”

When the temperatures rise the sap flows up from being stored in the roots all winter and rushes up the tree like a geyser to get to the very end of the branches to feed the buds ready to pop into leaves as soon as spring allows. Tapping into the tree during this time and taking out just a little bit of the sugar laden sap, sugarmakers can then work their magic and turn it into all sorts of sweet treats. Syrup, candy, sugar, cream and even use it to flavor nuts, coffee and tea.

The magic is really pretty simple, boil, boil, boil and boil some more. Whether in a kitchen pan over a wood fired stove or in a huge kitchen sized evaporator fueled by oil or propane, the water is taken out of the sap and the sugar concentrates. How long you boil and to what temperature will decide what end product you’ll get. Across the board, Maple syrup is the #1 product made.

I’ve been asked more than a few times why I bother making maple syrup as I no longer work at the park where I was the Sugarmaker and Nature Educator and taught about the craft. My answer wasn’t really a simple one. I know i can buy a quart of pretty good stuff at my local warehouse club for about $15 a quart so it’s not because it’s cheaper. I’ve invested a few hundred dollars to set myself up with supplies like taps, buckets, lids, a 16×16 stainless pan over a burner, a hydrometer to test density and last year spent $45 on the propane to boil it down outside. Yes, you can boil it on your kitchen stove if you want stains on your painted walls (I have those) from the steam drips that dried or sticky residue on your cabinet doors (I washed that off) and kitchen floor. I do it because 1) I like to make things from scratch, 2) The taste after the labor is like no other, 3) It reminds me of our connection to the earth that God has given us and lastly, 4) I am a teacher always and am enjoying passing the craft on to my own grandchildren and friends children too.

A few years back we went to a sugar shack where fried dough was being served. Being from Connecticut, Italians put red tomato sauce on fried dough or maybe powdered sugar. Much to the dismay of my late Italian step-father, I never cared for either. At Thelma’s Sugar Shack she slathered her fried dough with Maple Cream and handed it to me. It took both my hands to hold the massive treat. I was in heaven. I sat at an outdoor picnic table in the late winter’s sun, boots in the mud, hot black coffee by my side and at that moment felt like I was in the closest place to heaven on earth as I could be.

So now I collect sap from some of my red maples and some from my son’s Sugar Maples and keep it chilled to 40 or below in jugs, coolers, the fridge, the freezer or even in a snow bank until I can get to the boiling. Needing approximately 40-42 gallons of sap on a good year to make just a gallon of syrup, I need to have a pretty large quantity before I start boiling. If we get a cold spell for a few days the sap stops running and I wait. If it really warms up I grab whatever food safe, clean container I can find and fill ’em up.

I won’t bore you with all the little details but if you want to know more you can go to www.ctmaple.org and get a wealth of information about all things sugaring. If you have questions, feel free to contact me. If you’re reading this, you know how to reach me.

When is sugaring season over? When you can see the buds on the trees starting to pop, it’s over,as the sap stays up in the tree and is mostly minerals and water now. Syrup made this late call it “Buddy” syrup and it can taste a bit tangy. I know that when you hear the little frogs called Spring Peepers calling out all night long that spring has come and it’s time to put away the sugaring supplies for another year.

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