Friday, March 8, 2013

Sweet on Syrup

Read Charlotte Canelli's column in the March 8, 2013 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.

At the first signs of the spring thaw, sometimes as early as late February, the maple sap harvesting begins. Buckets and tubing begin to show up along muddy back road. March is the month when maple sugar festivals occur across the country in states like Oregon, Michigan and Massachusetts. It’s during this time that we hope we’re in for another sweet year.

Days must be warm and nights drop to freezing or below in order for the sap to flow. Most people know that it takes a lot of juice to make maple syrup – somewhere between 35-40 gallons of sap for one gallon of syrup. What might not be so well-known is that it takes about as many years (35-40) for a maple tree to be mature enough to be tapped.

One March Sunday over a decade ago I went with a friend on a quest. We were rambling across northern Vermont very early that morning, winding over back roads wet with melting snow and hills dotted with small farms, cows and sheep. We watched as one plume of thick, billowing white smoke followed another on the horizon. We veered off our asphalt trail onto a dirt one leading into the woods. That road narrowed and became rutted and ended when we cut the engine in front of a working sugar house.

Of course, we were lucky that the owner was cordial when we knocked on his sugarhouse door. Vermont has a reputation for good nature, of course, so we had high hopes. We weren’t disappointed as he humored us. He detailed the entire process as we watched his year's first vintage bubble and steam up the place.

I had visited many sugar houses with my daughters when they were young. What Girl Scout or Boy Scout Troop hasn’t had on their agenda a trip to the local sugar house? There was something much more natural in our visit with an unassuming farmer. His wife brought him a plate of eggs and bacon for Sunday breakfast and he chatted with us for an hour, his only visitors. We were enamored.

We bought and took home a gallon of that exact same first batch. The metal container started out so hot that when we removed it from the car later than night it was warm to the touch. It was impossible to hoard the contents that spring and summer; we tasted that Vermont morning every opportunity we got.

The first sap of the season is the clearest, the finest and requires the least amount of boiling to produce syrup. It is the most expensive, but not necessarily the most popular. Some people prefer the dark, dense syrup that comes later in the spring. Labeled dark amber, it has a fuller maple flavor and can be used delightfully in cooking.

There are many books in the children’s collection in which the maple sugaring process is featured. Two of my favorites are “Sugaring” by Jessie Haas (1996) and “The Sugaring-off Party” by Jonathan London (1995). Author Haas, a graduate of Wellesley College grew up in Vermont. Haas tells the story of a young girl and her grandparents collecting sap across a snowy Vermont farm and boiling down the syrup. Jonathan London retells the stories of the sugaring-off parties of his wife’s childhood in Quebec. Both books are full of delightful illustrations for children and adults.

If you have maple trees to tap in your yard, there are a few books in the Minuteman Library Network that can teach you how to accomplish it. “Maple on Tap: Making Your Own Maple Syrup” (2012) by Rich Finzer can save you from beginner’s mistakes, like boiling in an unvented kitchen. One more is “Backyard Sugarin’: A Complete How-to-Guide” (1991) by Rink Mann. There are several editions of this maple-expert’s book in the library catalog. Maple Sugaring at Home by Joe McHale (2010) is a remarkably short book, only 40 pages, but the information in it is enough to get your family started. Another book, “Maple Sugar: From Sap to Syrup – the History, Lore and How-To Behind This Sweet Treat” by Tim Herd (2011) includes plenty of fascinating facts and history.

I’ve never wanted to tap into actual maple sugaring adventures. I’m satisfied to visit a sugar house or two each season (Parker’s in Mason, New Hampshire is one of my favorites) and buy my syrup. I’m contributing to the sustainability of local sugar houses and at the same time sweetening up my family meals. There are some fantastic recipes books available in our catalog, among them “Very Maple Syrup” (2003) by Jennifer Trainer Thompson, “Maple Syrup: Farmstand Favorites – Over 75 Farm-Fresh Recipes” (2011) by June Eding, “The Maple Syrup Book” (2006) by Janet Eagleson, and the “Maple Syrup Cookbook: 100 Recipes for Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner” (2001) by Ken Haedrich.

2013 looks to be a good year for sugaring across New England. In 2012, Massachusetts production was down by a third due to some less-than decent conditions for sugaring. Unseasonably warm nights and cold days made for a poorer harvest. Massachusetts produces about 50,000 gallons of syrup – sometimes priced as high as $75 at local sugar houses.

Our family loves real maple syrup. We use it in sauces, dressings and marinades and pour it on anything that fancies us. Breakfasts on the weekend with visitors always includes a maple morning or two. Visit the library’s website and the link to the Minuteman Library Network to place one of these books on hold. You may also call 781-769-0200 and speak to a librarian who will place the request for you.