Tuesday, April 6, 2010
A Day in the Sugar Bush
A few weekends ago I was a grateful guest at a family farm that just happens to have its own private sugar bush. Thanks to a family friend, I was privy to the old fashioned pan boiling process that produces the beautiful amber liquid we call maple syrup.
The day began with a hearty lunch made lovingly by the family matriarch. As we slurped up our spaghetti, we sat and listened to stories about the farm, the farmhouse and the history of the Burnstown area. The farmhouse itself had a few modern conveniences, but it was still charming and historical; what you might imagine a quintessential Canadian farmhouse to be like. Tires on trees for swinging, a notepad inside the screen door for visitors who've dropped by, and old stone fences around the fields making you think you're in Ireland.
After lunch we headed out on the 4-wheeler to the sugar shack, passing through the fields that used to house livestock many years ago. The farm itself spans 200 acres and is over 100 years old. The sugar shack itself was built in the 1960s; before that time the farmers had to prepare the sweet elixir while surviving the elements. Once we arrived at the sugar shack, it was time to learn the process of making maple syrup.
The first step involves collecting sap from the 150 sugar maple trees on the property that have been tapped. Each year around St. Paddy's Day these trees are tapped by drilling a small hole into the trunk, in the lower half of the tree. The sap starts at the bottom and is on its way up to feed the buds, so it's wise to tap it at a lower point. The spile is then inserted, and the bucket is attached. For larger trees, sometimes two spiles are used. The ideal conditions for collecting sap exist between 5 degrees Celsius during the day and -5 degrees Celsius at night.
During my visit the sap wasn't running as it was about 0 degrees, however we still toured the property to see all of the tapped trees. Sap is collected in this large tub, with a wooden board covering it so the sap doesn't splash out while the tub is being carted around the farm.
Once the sap is collected, you can begin boiling! The main purpose of straining and boiling is to clarify the sap and reduce it into maple syrup. The first step is to pour some sap into the first pot, which acts as a sieve. This one is actually an old cream separator, but with a little bit of cloth and some clothespins, it seems to do the trick.
The sap drains from the first pot into the first pan. All the while there is a roaring fire below both pans to keep the sap boiling. While it boils, a white foam appears on the surface which is to be scooped up. The impurities in the sap are constantly rising to the top, being strained or being boiled at high temperatures, all in the name of clarifying. After the sap in the first pan reaches 212 degrees, it is then transferred to the second pan and brought to a boil again. In this pan the temperature must reach between 217 and 218 degrees, a higher temperature because it is more concentrated.
The fire must be continuously stoked with softwood as the boiling process takes place. Overnight, hardwood is placed in the fire to keep the coals warm.
At this point, the sap needs to be clarified even further, so a small amount of homogenized milk is added to the mix. For every 2 gallons of syrup, the amount of milk added is 1 cup. It must be homogenized milk as the fat in the milk will attract all of the remaining sediments, and the foam that results is scraped from the surface to create an even more pristine product. After the foam is scooped out and the temperature reaches 219 degrees, you have syrup! The concentration of this syrup is 67.5% on the Brix scale. If the concentration is higher, you will end up with maple sugar or maple candy. The syrup is then collected in a pail for finishing.
Once you have clarified syrup, you are ready to perfect it to create your desired finished product. First the syrup is poured into a felt and cloth-lined filter and allowed to drip into a pail below. After this is collected, it is transferred into a large pot and boiled again on a camp stove. While it is still hot, the syrup is poured into bottles until it reaches the very top. As the syrup cools, it will contract and result in the proper amount per bottle. The family uses recycled bottles, so you might find your syrup in an olive oil bottle or a liquor bottle which gives each bottle its own story. (I can assure you they are all sanitized beforehand!) It is important to bottle the syrup when it's still hot, as if you bottled it cold and then it warmed up, the bottles would explode! (Do not try this at home!)
At the end of the day, I left with a bottle in hand, ready to infuse this amazing syrup into many recipes at home. This family has kept their maple syrup tradition alive because they have a real connection to the land and they love the process. Everyone in the family is involved and it is a part of their history. I fully enjoyed my slice of rural life that day and I look forward to sharing my maple-inspired recipes in the days to come! So far the sweet syrup has been a good friend to my morning oatmeal. Many thanks to my host family for all of their time and energy!