Friday, March 27, 2009
At the First Caw of the Crow
We've seen our first robins and red-winged blackbirds, but in Vermont, there's no more faithful sign of spring than the smoke rising from the chimneys of the sugarhouses where our celebrated maple syrup is made.
This weekend is Open House weekend for all our sugarhouses. I visited the Isham Family Farm with Max's Kindergarten class this afternoon, where we toured the sugarbush (aka the maple tree grove), ran through meadows, learned about the sugaring process, and tasted the sap, syrup, and donuts covered with maple glaze.
A trip to a sugarhouse is a rite of passage for our kids every spring -- especially if donuts or "sugar on snow" (warm syrup drizzled cold snow and finished with a sour pickle) are involved. They've heard over and over the legend of Woksis, the Iroquois chief who put a gash in a tree with his tomahawk, and from the gash, sap dripped into a vessel beneath the tree. Woksis' wife used what she thought was water in the vessel to cook their evening meal, but the water evaporated and turned into a thick, sweet syrup that the Indians enjoyed as a sweetener. Thus, the story of how maple syrup was discovered.
Today, the process uses more equipment, but the basic process is the same. Collect the maple sap, boil it down, and bottle it. At the first caw of the crow -- usually in early February -- the Ishams install 800 taps in their sugarbush, all connected to a series of tubes that are eventually pumped into the sugarhouse. When the weather warms to above freezing during the day (but still colder at night),the sap starts to run. Once the Ishams collect a few hundred gallons in the sugarhouse, they load it into an evaporator fueled by a wood fire and boil it for the better part of a day until the syrup reaches a 66-67 percent sugar content at a temperature of 7.1 degrees Fahrenheit above boiling. After it cools, the syrup is filtered, graded (Light Amber, Medium Amber, Dark Amber, and Grade B), and canned. It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.
Sugaring operations smaller than the Ishams' still hang steel buckets from trees and collect the sap manually using horse teams. I thought I might tap a few trees this spring but didn't get around to it, and given that the flow of sap is dependent on certain weather conditions, I've probably missed the window. Besides, we really have only one or two maple trees that are large enough to tap, so the sap I'd collect would probably make about a cup of syrup. Maybe next year...
I didn't taste my first real maple syrup until I met Husband, who has roots in Vermont (I was a Mrs. Butterworth's child), and I can't imagine ever using anything but the real thing ever again (despite it's high price this year). Even our new IHOP has made arrangements with "corporate" to serve real syrup at the restaurant here. (Honestly, they'd probably be run out of town if they served a substitute.) Our trees, sap, and syrup are a treasured part of our state culture -- and economy -- and if you try some on vanilla ice cream, you'll know why.