There is little that is uplifting about our “Fifth Season” here in New England. However, the same conditions that bring about the mud also cause the sap to run—sap from the sugar maple trees to be precise. It is Sugaring Season! Sweeeet!
Though the season itself is brief, the overall enterprise is much more involved. It includes procuring the equipment, hanging your lines (or buckets), planning the logistics of collecting your sap, and making sure everything is in good order. Then the vigil sets in. The weather is monitored closely until the right conditions occur—daytime temperatures of 40-45 degrees and below freezing at night. Like so many other harvesting enterprises, crunch time hits and it is round the clock till that spectacular tree begins to bud and the sap flows for an altogether different reason.
Maple sugar/syrup is a uniquely American experience. Like many other useful food traditions, the early settlers “discovered” maple from the Native Americans. Two simple tomahawk chops to the tree caused “sugar water” to flow and The People considered it as another gift from the Gods. They boiled venison in it for additional flavor. They had a unique method for separating the sugar from the water. Allowing the maple sap to freeze, it was the water portion that froze, leaving behind the sugar. It was in this way they concentrated the sugar levels from the 2 percent present in fresh maple sap. In their inimitable fashion, they condensed it further and used it as an all-purpose sweetener and made maple candy in all shapes and sizes!
So let’s fast forward to the early colonies and fledgling country. Trade was brisk and early America’s biggest import and predominant sweetener was cane sugar from the West Indies. Not only was it expensive, but it was produced on the backs of slave labor. A “maple sugar scheme” was conceived by Thomas Jefferson and promoted by abolitionists and Quakers. The idea was to undermine the sugar trade (and the slave trade) by promoting the production of maple sugar! A homegrown and economic alternative, Mr. Jefferson spent years promoting the planting of sugar maples and tried to grow them at his Virginia plantation. Alas, Mr. Jefferson was not destined to be the next Johnny Appleseed; sugar maple trees did not like Virginia. However he did convince lots of Vermonters to plant them! With the later introduction of sugar from beets, the bottom fell out of the market and the northern producers switched to syrup production. The rest, as they say, is history.
- The season runs roughly six weeks from late February to early April.
- It takes 40 gallons of maple sap to produce one gallon of syrup.
- It is one of the few ‘wild foods’ available in a commercial supermarket.
- Early sap has a slightly higher sugar content, takes less time to reduce, and results in the ‘fancy’ grade.
- Later sap requires more boiling, hence more ‘caramelization,’ resulting in darker, more flavorful syrup.
- Syrup is high in manganese, provides 37 percent of our daily vitamin B needs, as well as zinc, magnesium, calcium, and potassium, and comes in at 217 calories for ¼ cup!
- Most sap is reduced in tin evaporator pans introduced in the 1800s, though some recent advances have been made.
- Sap becomes syrup at 219.5 degrees when it has achieved a 67 percent concentration of sugar.
But talk about local food! When my daughter got married last summer, everyone had a maple candy ‘favor’ at their seat. They were made by Townsend’s Sugar House in Lebanon, NH! The sugar aisle at your local Co-op Food Store is loaded with sweet local goodness and be sure to check out syrup made by Pat and Linda Temple, longstanding Co-op employees and suppliers (like them on Facebook @ Maple Valley Sugar Products). In addition, you will find many grades of local syrup, maple sugar, maple cream and an assortment of maple candies. Use them liberally. They are simply sweet and delicious. Here are some ideas.
1 cup maple syrup
Trim, then carefully rinse and allow the violets to air dry.
Pour one cup of maple syrup in a shallow bowl.
Place several violets in the bowl.
With a fork, lift a violet and allow excess syrup to drain off.
Place on a paper towel and allow to dry for several hours.
Use in salads or to flavor a cup of tea!
When violets in your yard come into full bloom, harvest a bunch.
You will now have an amazing garnish with sweet and floral notes and unique eye appeal!
This reduction of vinegar and maple is a basic play on sweet and sour sauce, but different.
6 Tbs. maple syrup
6 Tbs. white balsamic vinegar
2 Tbs. butter
Combine the maple syrup and vinegar and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and boil for at least 4 minutes. Liquid should begin to thicken (it should coat the back of a spoon).
Remove from heat and whisk in the butter. Use (1½ Tbs.) coconut oil instead of butter for a dairy free alternative.
Drizzle it on meat or fish dishes before serving.
“Paint” it on roasts to create a glaze.
Drizzle it over sweet potatoes
Drizzle over mac ‘n cheese or scrambled eggs
Switch up the vinegar for different effect.
1/2 cup maple gastrique
1/4 cup vinegar
1 Tbs. Dijon mustard
1 cup olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Combine all ingredients in appropriate container and blend well.
Use this to create an amazing vegetable slaw.