Sunday, March 6, 2011

Try a little maple, Sugar...

photo credit: D Sharon Pruitt, flickr

Growing up here in New England, it's sometimes easy to forget just how much history this place has. From the early Native American tribes who made their lives here, to the first settlements of the New England colonies, there are reminders everywhere about what it must have been like to live here hundreds of years ago.

This weekend, I took to the woods for a somewhat impromptu look at the process of maple sugaring. The Rhode Island Audubon Society offers a little weekend tour this time of year, and I'm sure you could find something comparable in just about every state in the Northeast.

During this quick and informative tour, I found out just how easy it can be to make this sweet treat right in your own back yard (or close to it). I promise that once you've tasted real, lovingly-made maple syrup, you'll be hard pressed to return to the mass-produced brands at the supermarket.

It turns out that this is pretty much the only time of year you can tap maple trees for their sweet, pancake-loving nectar. The freezing temperatures of mid-winter keep the internal moisture content of the trees down too low for liquid to move. When it gets warmer in the late spring and summer, the liquid coming from the trees will be too bitter. For the proper running of the sap to take place, a tree needs below freezing temperatures at night, and above freezing temperatures during the day. Interesting, huh?

Our guide shows us how to identify the various species of maple trees, referencing both their leaves and their branches.

Both the Native American tribes and the New England colonists found an important foodstuff in the sap of maple trees. With a shortage of refined foods, especially sugars, the native population of New England was pretty healthy. Not only did they tend to have longer life-spans than Europeans of this period, but they were also taller too. Early "old world" accounts of native peoples mentioned notably "tall" individuals. Our guide mentioned that it was not uncommon for both native women and men of this area to be 6 feet tall or more. Native peoples did, of course, consume meat protein, but they also had a rich and varied plant-food component to their diet. And, as all of us veggie-people know, plant foods can make you plenty big and strong!

Through trade with native peoples, the colonists were introduced to maple sugar. It was much more easily produced than common table sugar, and much cheaper too. So the colonists used it happily, and incorporated it into their recipes. Even today, maple-flavored (and maple-friendly) foods are quite associated with New England. Johnny cakes anyone? Maybe some hasty pudding?

Funnily enough though, maple sap doesn't taste like much right out of the tree. One of our Audubon guides encouraged us to taste the fresh stuff from of one of the taps. It really just tastes like very slightly sweet water. To give you an idea why, it takes about 40 gallons of sugar maple sap to boil down to one gallon of maple syrup.

But boy is it worth it!

I am really hoping that I'll be able to make maple syrup from my own tree someday. But I better start now, because, from what I remember from the tour, it could take 25 years for a maple tree to grow large enough to be able to be tapped to make syrup. So plan ahead guys!

To see more of my adventures in sugaring, please continue reading below.

Happy eating all!

The boiling down process should only be attempted outside, unless you want to turn your living room into a sauna; Note: turkey friers can be put to better use without the turkey!

Note to self (and others): Choose proper footwear for tramping around damp woodland as the snow melts. Just saying, these are supposed to be very light gray faux suede shoes...

A note to vegan and vegetarian maple-sugar enthusiasts: I've done a little online reading about maple syrup, and it turns out that some commercial syrup producers may use de-foaming agents in their boiling-down process. Sometimes, this may include an animal fat such as butter. If you are able to get your maple syrup from a local producer, I am sure that they would be more than happy to tell you if animal products are part of their production process. A phone call or an email might be all you need. And, once you find a producer you feel comfortable with, you are all set. Otherwise, online buying might be an option. Or hey, why not come see us up here in New England? We'd be happy to have you! Or if you want to try your hand at making your own syrup, so much the better.

If you do plan to tap your trees to make maple syrup, it is advisable to read up on it first. Trees have to be a certain width around in order to be safely tapped. Tapping trees that are too small could kill or injure the tree and end your sugaring adventure too soon. Your local hardware or garden store might be able to give you some tips on this process if you ask. Your local library might also have books on the subject. And God knows there's always the internet!

I hope you've enjoyed this taste of nature's bounty, and here's hoping that organizations like the Audubon society keep doing such an awesome job of preserving information like this. We all know that the supermarket isn't the only place food comes from after all....

Happy sugaring all, and see you for breakfast!

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