Now that the sun is getting higher and the temperatures are around 40 the maple sap is running and its Maple Syrup season in the North Country!
My first memories of what I though was maple syrup are the bottled pancake syrup that are made from corn syrup then colored and flavored to taste like maple syrup. As a kid we ate what were were given and so that was that.
One spring our parents tapped the 3 maple trees that lined the driveway. I don’t remember much because I was probably about 5 or 6 but what I do remember was the constant steam loosened some of the wall paper and that was the end of that.
The only other thing I remember was we made something called sugar on snow or wax on snow or something like that. My mother heated up some of the syrup and cooked it for a while. Then she poured the reduced maple syrup over snow that we packed into cake pans. The syrup hardened into a sort of taffy and we could pick it up and eat it. Thinking back she must have cooked it to at least a soft ball stage if not further.
A few years later I was introduced to a real sugar bush. My pal next door knew about a man near by who tapped trees and boiled the sap into surip. We headed off on our bikes and ended up in a grove of maple trees that was still carpeted in a foot of snow.
The shanty was a unpainted wooden building with a large vent in the roof to let the steam out. One side of the building was connected to a large tank full of sap and the other side was piled high with split wood for the fire.
All the trees around us had tin pails with folded tops hanging on them. He had a sled with a big wooden tub and a horse to pull it through the woods as he emptied the buckets into the tub. When the tub was full or all the buckets were empty the horse pulled it back to the sugar shack and it was allowed to drain by gravity into a holding tank.
Inside the shack the metal evaporators were large, to us, probably 2 or 3 by 4 or 6 feet wide. There was a fire box underneath and he would periodically open the door and stir the fire or chuck in a piece of wood. A scum accumulated on the surface and there was a piece of salt pork suspended above the surface from the ceiling with a piece of wire and a small iron hook , to keep the bubbles down I suppose.
The owners name was Vince LaFave and when we entered the shack he was skimming the syrup and offered us a taste. He reached up and pulled a tin cup down off a nail and dipped out some of the syrup for us to taste. I remember it was smoky and sweet and how he warned us about drinking too much because it would give us the runs. We spent an hour or so poking around and asking questions and petting the horse and headed home.
I remember going back a few times. After a few years he built a new sugar shack close to the road. It was a more modern metal sided affair with a trolley for moving wood from the covered wood storage area to the enclosed evaporator room. I don’t ever remember if he used the new sugar shack, which is still there, but loggers went in and cleared out most of the maples a number of years ago.
Fast forward 20 or more years and we were living in a house 3 doors down from home. This house also had maple trees and we thought it would be fun for us and the kids to tap them and make some maple syrup.
We went out and bought enough taps for 3 trees, 3 taps per tree. One of the trees was probably 100 years old and the others were more like 40 or less. We used a wood bit and drilled the holes about 3 inches deep on a bit of an upward angle. We used a hammer to seat the taps in the holes and hung some plastic buckets under them.
The buckets came from the grocery store bakery and they had tops. We wanted to use theme with the tops so rain and debris would not fall into the pails so we cut a 3 inch hole in the side just below the rim and used the edge to hang them on. They only held about a gallon or so and we transferred the sap into 30 gallon plastic barrels that we kept out side and in the shade.
When the sun was shinning and the temperatures were in the 40s the sap just about ran into the pails and we would need to empty them several times a day. The sap would stop running hard at night so as long as we got out early we would not loose any.
To boil or evaporate the sap we used a 12 by 18 inch stainless steel kitchen pan that was about 3 inches deep. It would fit over 2 burners of the stove and the wide areas allowed for greater evaporation. We used cheese cloth to strain the sap into a clean pail before we put it in the evaporator.
We boiled and added more sap as the level went down. After boiling all day we transferred the syrup into a large pot for finishing. This way we could take it to the proper temperature which is 7.1 degrees above the temperature of boiling water. We did not have fancy digital thermometers at that time so we eye-balled it but we did check the thermometer with boiling water first, each day. Evidently the temperature at which water boils changes with the barometric pressure, which changes every day. Incidentally this is probably why it can be difficult to make fudge constantly from day to day using the same temperature point. I’m not sure what the temperature differential is for fudge but I think it is well worth looking into. We eat so little fudge that it would be nice to have it come out perfect every time. But I digress.
While we were finishing the syrup we sterilized mason jars. We used quarts, pints and half pints. When the syrup was finished we would pour it into the clean hot jars and cap it. This was the tricky part because the syrup was very hot and it could be easy to be scalded.
We did the syrup thing for about 3 years and every year we were rewarded for our efforts with 5 or 6 gallons of really nice medium dark amber syrup. It was odd but we found that the old tree made dark maple syrup and the 2 younger ones made light amber. We simply mixed them up to make a nice full bodied flavor.
I cant remember if the cost of the gas for the stove offset the cost of the maple syrup but the experience and fun made it all worthwhile.
Here is a site that goes into the process of making maple syrup in great detail.