The old black-and-white photo brings back so many memories. Sugaring off was a spring ritual when I was a kid living on the outskirts of Montreal. We’d bundle up in winter clothes and drive to a sugarbush in the Laurentians to enjoy a day in the warm spring sun: tobogganing, skiing, and picnicking in the woodlot. At the top of the list was the sweet, special maple syrup poured out of steel jugs, steaming hot, right onto the trays of fresh clean snow. My brother and I were SO impatient, waiting until it had cooled enough to wrap around a wooden stick to enjoy as delicious sticky maple taffy.
Fast-forward to March-Break with our son, and ski vacations that included this wonderful ritual slope-side at Mont-Sainte-Anne, where their cabane à sucre was right beside one of the ski trails!
Quebec is the largest source of maple syrup in the world, producing 70 per cent of the total global output! It’s made from the sap of the sugar maple tree. In late winter the sugar-maker drills narrow holes into the trunks of mature trees, tapping a spout, or spile, into the hole to which a bucket or plastic pipeline is attached. A healthy tree can provide sap for over 100 years! Each hole, or tap, will produce 35 to 50 litres of sap each season. This is collected and boiled in a special ridged metal pan to evaporate the water and concentrate the sap into syrup. It takes between 30 and 50 litres of sap to make one litre of syrup.
Sap is about 98 per cent water and two per cent sugar. Modern reverse-osmosis procedures improve the process by removing much of the water before the sap is boiled. This reduces the boiling-time needed to reach the correct syrup content of 33 per cent water and 67 per cent sugar.
Long before European explorers and fur traders travelled across this country, Indigenous people made maple syrup to cure meats, as a sweetener for bitter medicines and as an anesthetic. Maple syrup was also used as a trade item in the form of dried, portable sugar slabs. They collected sap in birch bark baskets placed below notches cut into the tree trunks. Small pieces of wood served as the spile – the clear sap flowed out from the trees and dripped into the baskets. Overnight, temperatures dropped below freezing, creating a layer of ice at the top of the baskets. The ice was removed in the morning, and the concentrated sap was poured into clay pots. The remaining water was removed by boiling the sap to make a golden-brown syrup, or, by more boiling, a light brown sugar which was stored in cone-shaped bark containers.
Syrup season is short, lasting between four to six weeks, starting when daytime winter temperatures climb above zero. Starch stored in the tree’s roots over the winter rises through the trunk as sugary sap. Ideal weather is warm and sunny during the day, and cold (below zero) overnight.
I have fond memories of trudging through the snow at my in-law’s sugarbush during Reading Week at university to drill holes, tap in spiles and hang buckets to prepare the trees for the warmer weather. We’d return mid-March to help carry 20-litre buckets of sap to the sugar shack, where the evaporator created huge clouds of steam as the sap boiled.
The first batches are light-golden in colour with a delicate flavour. As the trees begin to grow again the colour of the syrup darkens to amber, then light brown and eventually dark brown. The taste gets stronger and more savoury as well.
Only syrups made entirely from maple sap can be labelled “maple syrup” in Canada. Those with other ingredients are called “table syrup” or “pancake syrup.”
Once the leaf buds begin to open, they give the syrup an unpleasant flavour, so the season is over for another year. It’s time to clean the buckets, spiles, and pipelines with plenty of hot water to ensure it is stored safely until the following spring.
Maple products include various grades of pure maple syrup, taffy, maple butter and maple sugar, which are enjoyed on pancakes, waffles, ice cream, and yogurt, as well as in drinks and much more. They’re also used to make butter tarts, sugar pies (there’s a rush!), sauces, candies, granola bars and much more. Beverage companies now use concentrated sap to make refreshing canned drinks. Maple syrup is packed with essential vitamins and minerals so it’s a healthier way to enjoy sweet treats.
Locally, you can see maple syrup being made on weekends in late-March and early-April at Pefferlaw Creek Farms, Purple Woods Conservation Area, Brooks Farms, and Bruce’s Mill. Sunderland will hold a Maple Syrup Festival April 1 and 2. More information is available at each location’s website.
Nancy Melcher is The Nature Nut. Send details of your sightings or questions about the natural world to: email@example.com