Wednesday, March 28, 2007
Maple Weekend, Now with Pictures!
We celebrated the arrival of spring in Lake Snowbegone by heading to the woods for the running of the sap. Yep, it was Maple Weekend up here last week, and the tiny towns were jumpin', what with all the pancake breakfasts and the steaming evaporators and the smiley lady from the Cornell Cooperative Extension handing out little paper cups of maple-walnut candy and stapled-together handouts full of recipes for maple-glazed sweet potatoes and maple-nut pancakes.
There was still soft snow under the sugar maples, but the temperature had poked up just enough over the past few days to start the sap running. Not by much, though; at Yancey's, they'd only started tapping the day before, and there wasn't enough sap yet to keep up with the syrup demands. But I digress.
We started out at the Golden Maple Shanty, where steam billowing out of the chimney did give the whole scene a nice IHOP smell. Inside, a big stainless-steel, oil-fired evaporator was bubbling busily, the hot sap flowing in channels labelled with digital temperature readouts. Talking to the proprietor, I found out that this machine was still a bit of a newcomer to the shanty. "I boiled sap over wood fires for 40 years," he said, then admitted the new oil-fired machines were trickier; they needed a continual flow of sap to keep from overheating, and you had to keep a close eye on the readouts, rather than watching the size of the bubbles on the roiling sap or gauging the heat of the fire. The room was cheerfully crowded, with not much difference between the look of the maple-makers and those come to buy their wares.
On a tip from the Cornell lady, we followed the directions on the Maple Weekend brochure through the woods out to Yancy's. On the way, we saw "Maple Syrup for Sale" signs tacked up in front of numerous farmhouses; once we got into the woods, plastic buckets once used for spackle and plaster were getting another go-round as sap collectors. Any house with a few trees around it was engaging in a little sugar-making.
Yancey's sugarbush, owned by the same family for over 150 years, is spread out over several hundred acres of old maples. The sugarhouse is still a large wooden shack, stacked with logs from floor to ceiling for firing up the long wood-fired evaporators.
Sap comes to the sugarhouse in a wagon hauled by a team of draft horses, to be poured down a chute into a boxy wooden storage tank that can take some 1500 gallons.
Warm near the fire, cold near the open doors, awash in billows of steam and lit only by the pale, snow-reflected afternoon light outside, this was syrup making mostly unchanged as it had been in New England for generations on end.
As one of the Yancey boys heaved more logs into the firebox, another scooped up boiling sap with a long-handled flat shovel. As with testing jelly, the syrup is done when it "sheets" from the edge of the scoop, hanging in a clear, glassy ridge from the metal edge. A hydrometer helps too, bobbing in a tube of boiling syrup to measure its density and decide when the sap's cooked down enough to be judged quality syrup.
The only thing not cooperating with the old-time vision were the trees themselves. The still-chilly days meant the sap was barely rising. Outside the door, metal buckets hung from the surrounding trees, each suspended beneath a thumb-sized spigot. I held the tip of my finger under the tap as a clear drop slowly swelled and fell. The taste was something more than clear water, a hint of wild tang, a bosky woodsiness.
But tang or not, the trees were still mostly sleeping, and with it taking around 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup, the line to fill metal jugs over at the hot syrup vat was long and barely moving. So we took our little pint jug and went back to town to get educated at the Maple Museum. The American (and Canadian, as the nice front-desk lady was careful to point out) Maple Museum tells the story of New England sugaring, with an emphasis on New York State. There's a maple hall of fame, full of photographs and plaques honoring achievement in the maple industry. There's a room dedicated to old logging and ice-cutting gear,with a huge proto-snowmobile and giant cast-iron prongs for lifting blocks of ice. There are bark baskets used for sap collection by local Oswego tribe members, and a sternly worded nutritional and economic-welfare comparision between real syrup and fake maple-flavored "table syrup", with an emphasis on how buying real syrup supports local family-run industry.
And although we now think of maple syrup as the main maple product, grainy tan blocks of solid maple sugar--which provided a much better work-to-money ratio for the sugar producer--used to make up the bulk of a sugarbush's output. In The Maple Sugar Book, Helen and Scott Nearing's entertaining little tome about their time working a small sugarbush in the 1930s and 40s, the Nearings point out the role maple sugar played in fighting the slave trade. In the mid-1800s, at the height of the abolitionist movement, many New England thinkers and activists promoted maple sugar as a cruelty-free alternative to cane sugar, which they saw as tainted by the suffering of the slaves used to produce it on the sugarcane plantations in the American South and in the West Indies. English abolitionists begged their countrymen to start planting maple trees, so as to have a source of sugar that could be cultivated by free men on native soil.
Back at Yancey's, we finally got our jug filled and headed home. The next morning: buckwheat pancakes with lots of syrup!
1/3 cup buckwheat flour
1/3 cup cornmeal
1/3 whole wheat flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
2 TB maple syrup
a few shakes of cinnamon (opt)
3/4 cup milk, or as needed
2 TB melted butter
chopped toasted nuts or chopped apples or pears, or berries
Maple syrup, warmed
Lightly grease a wide frying pan or griddle. Heat over medium heat. Stir or sift dry ingredients together. Beat egg, milk, and butter in a cup, then stir in gently. Add more milk as needed for a proper batter consistency; thick batter will give thicker, fluffier cakes; thin batter makes thinner, more delicate cakes. Add chopped nuts or fruit, as desired. Pour onto hot griddle and bake over medium-low heat until browned and small bubbles are popping on top side of cake. Flip and cook until browned. Serve with plenty of warm syrup