My daughter Olivia and I ran out of maple syrup at the end of January. If you are the pancake lovers that we are, that is reason for alarm. It was one of those moments when I realized that we had a massive maple tree on our property in Connecticut. Why not harvest the syrup? After all, we raise chickens, have an extensive organic garden and even succumbed last summer to raising a pig. So to tap a tree, collect the watery sap and do the big boil seemed like a lark. For the most part it was, but be warned, it is labor intensive.
A little history first. Maple sap is one of the foods we learned about from the native Americans. The season of the warming days but cold nights was referred to as the season of the “Maple Moon.” The native Americans made the boiled sap into cakes which they used to sweeten their foods including meats. When hunting was scarce whole villages survived on the maple cakes for weeks and sometimes months. The cakes were even used for “wampum” or trading items.
Now to the syrup itself. You need to start with the right tree, the sugar maple. (There is a story of a man who mistakenly tapped a sycamore and after a long,long distilling session ended up with half a cup of sweet iodine.) Not all maples give the syrup. How to find the right one? The easiest way is to find it is when the leaves are still on it in the summer or fall. If you are looking in the winter, look for a bark that if mature is dark, deeply furrowed and with long and thick irregular ridges. The bark looks scaly with age. The twigs are slender, straight, tough, shiny and tan, with light oval spots. They are flanked by paired side buds. The tip of the twig is brownish purple. and can be quite pointed. On the ground you may find the dried, five-lobed leaves or the fruit: a horse-shoe shaped arrangement of two seeds with slightly divergent wings. Sugar maples like rich well drained soil. Its look-alike cousin, the red maple, likes lower, wetter areas.
What to do next? Get the equipment. Go on line and buy a spile. That is the hollowed spike you dig into the tree. You then need a receptacle that will hang from the spile and catch the liquid. Make sure the receptacle has a lid, you don’t want to harvest all the flying insects that also love the sap!
Now, a tree is tapped by drilling a 7/16th inch diameter hole at a slight angle upward into the tree. The depth of the whole should be about 2 1/2 inches depending on the size of the tree. The tree has to be old enough to tap. That is determined by the Diameter Breast Height. How to assess that? You measure 4 and 1/2 feet up the tree. The diameter of the tree should be at least 10 inches. If not, leave the tree alone. If the tree has a diameter of 10 to 15 inches you can put two taps into it. The tap should be placed in a healthy area on the
tree. Do not tap near a dead limb or within four inches of last year’s tap hole. Then pound with a hammer the spile into the tree and be careful not to crack the surrounding wood (legend has it that when a tomahawk was pulled from a tree a white liquid dripped and that was how the natives learned about maple sap.) Hang a gallon type receptacle from the spile. The sap can run fast or slow. Check it every day. If temps rise over 60 degrees in the day, be careful the sap does not spoil. Refrigerate or keep in a cool place any sap collected from the tree. Make the syrup as soon as possible. The freshness does effect the taste. The ideal temperature for the flow of sap is 45-50 degrees by mid-morning preceded by a clear bright day and overnight low temperature of 20 degrees fahrenheit.
Cooking down the sap is the easy part until the end. It takes approximately 10 gallons of sap to make one pint of syrup. I start my syrup outside because of all the steam. The only other technique you need to employ other than boiling is filtering. As I said, insects love the sap too, so before your initial boil run the sap through 4 layers of cheesecloth. I pour the sap through a large collander into a huge lobster pot and let it boil most of the day over a propane flame outside. Once it boils down to a size that will fit in a stock pot in the house I filter it again through 4 layers of cheesecloth and bring it inside to the stove. Syrup boils at 7degrees above the boiling point of water (212 degrees). I use a candy thermometer to watch how it goes. The syrup starts off either clear or cloudy white. As it boils down it gets a rusty hue. In the pot on the stove the color deepens and deepens. Then all at once it bubbles like crazy into a caramel color and you smell the syrup almost on the point of burning. Fast,fast, fast get it off the heat. Filter again while it is at least 160 degrees and put in sterilized glass, tin or heavy plastic containers. Seal and then turn upside down to lock the seal.
Each tree, batch will taste slightly different. The first run off is clearer and purer but the end of the season, not so much. Each tree has it’s own taste. Sounds like a description from Napa Valley. Why not call this New England wine? Many thanks to my great friend and mentor, Steve Nicholas who has tapped many a tree and has forgotten more than I will ever know. Also my gratitude to The Flanders Nature Center in Woodbury, Connecticut for their wonderful education center! Next dreary March, make a trip there. Get up close and personal with your maple syrup!