From My WindowIssue Date: March 11, 2020
The Maple Gold Rush
By Jane Thibodeau Martin,>
The spring gold rush is on, with the day and nighttime temperatures vacillating above and below freezing in the formula needed to rouse the trees from their long winter sleep. Of special interest in Wisconsin is the reawakening of sugar maple trees.
My husband grew up in a big family that made their own syrup from a "sugar bush" on their land. But after decades, with the death of the patriarch and most of the siblings scattered across the U.S., this family tradition nearly died. One son who lived locally continued to gather sap on the family property to supply his own needs most years, but on a small scale.
But this year, with our return to the north, idle conversation over a beer turned into a resolution to have a family syrup reunion, with four of the brothers, a granddaughter's husband and two great-grandsons planning on participating. The effort will be conducted in the old way, with buckets instead of tubing; and sap boiling in a big pan over a wood fire banked with mud right in the sugar bush.
Maple syrup pre-dates the arrival of European immigrants in North America. The indigenous people gathered sap in shallow, bark vessels and let it freeze. The freeze would separate the water from the sugar, and once the ice was removed concentrated sap was left. The concentrate was boiled using fire heated stones.
While there are small amounts of maple syrup produced in Europe, Canada leads the world. The Canadian province of Quebec is king, producing 70 percent of the world's output, almost 8 million gallons in one data table I saw. Following Quebec are Vermont, the province of Ontario, New York, Maine, the province of New Brunswick, and Wisconsin (at 117,000 gallons of syrup the year of the data table I looked at,) followed by New Hampshire, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. This morning's newscast said the Wisconsin crop is worth $7 million a year, and it's fair to guess a lot of personal production isn't counted in this figure.
When you consider it takes 40 gallons of sap to make a single gallon of syrup, that's a massive amount of collection and production, especially when it is done via pail and manual labor. During a "good run," each tapped tree can produce about a gallon of sap per day.
Many things impact the quality of the run. The climate of the tree's location, the weather of each particular spring, the time of the season (early or late) and the soil. All of these variables plus cooking methodology mean no two batches of syrup will be exactly the same.
The kind of tree producing the sap is important too. The best tree is the aptly-named sugar maple, followed by black maple, red maple, silver maple, and Norway maple. But other trees can be used as well, like boxelder, big leaf maple, big tooth maple, and paper birch. Boxelder has much lower sugar content than sugar maple, so it takes 60 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup. And paper birch needs 110 gallons of sap for a gallon. It is easy to see why the sugar maple reigns supreme.
Maple syrup is high in antioxidants, minerals and nutrients yet has fewer calories than honey. Maybe my brother is on to something using maple syrup to sweeten his coffee.
One of the odd and interesting things I learned is that there is an inherited metabolic disease called "Maple Syrup Urine Disease," which affects infants, and causes their urine to smell like maple syrup. (The disease has nothing to do with consuming maple syrup.)
As I thought about maple syrup, I began to appreciate the incomparable generosity of sugar maples. Usually these trees were not planted by humans for the purpose of sap collection. They require no pesticides, cultivation or fertilizers " avoiding major costs, potential environmental impacts and human health implications. They don't need to be replanted but can be tapped year after year. After syrup season they provide shade, beauty, and habitat for insects, birds and other creatures. And in autumn, the colors of the sugar maples are peerless, making Wisconsin famous for our fall colors. The sugar maple is truly a "giving tree," with the only possible complaint about them coming from people who get cranky over raking up leaves. (If you have children or grandchildren, the tree gives again, because kids and dogs LOVE playing in fallen leaves.)
The goal of this family project is to furnish all the participants with good quality, home-grown syrup for pancakes and waffles. The syrup contains minerals drawn from Martin soil, land that has been in the family for four generations, with a fifth generation now growing up in the original family farmhouse. A byproduct will be healthy time working in the woods, family camaraderie and the reawakening of memories, alongside the reawakening of the trees. I like to think that Henry and Alice Martin are smiling down on this activity, and are pleased that some of the old ways survive in this changed world.
You can reach me for commentary, alternative viewpoints or ideas at this e-mail address: JanieTMartin@gmail.com.
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