Mason jars filled with the sweet gold of maple syrup line the window sill of Sandra’s Vermont home in the forests near Lincoln. Here in La Grande, Oregon, some 2800 miles away, sap is rising, too, in the trees of exhilarating Spring. But ah..those maple trees of New England are so so sweet….I can almost inhale the maple perfume from Sandra’s cookstove, a fragrance carried on the winds of April. If you missed, part 1 of Sandra’s story of tapping the trees, you can read it here.
Sandra Murphy writes:
I’m sitting at the kitchen counter, writing to the deep hum and snap of wood burning in the cookstove and the sigh of pots boiling on the stovetop. Three big pots, each foamy with hot sap. The sap was coursing through the maples just hours ago, rising toward the canopy with sugars newly released from the roots.
Most people boil sap outside, since for every gallon of syrup made, about 40 gallons of water boil off as steam.If you’re tapping more than a handful of trees, you’d turn your house into a Turkish bath. But a handful is what I have, and my syrup making is slow, done in the evenings when I fire up the woodstove to warm the house. And I might be biased, but my maples seem mighty sweet, with a sap-to-syrup ratio that seems closer to 20 or 25-1. The first sap run yielded two and a half pints of beautiful, golden syrup, boiled over a couple days. The moisture it produced was just enough to add a pleasant humidity to the winter dryness, tinged with the lightest scent of fresh maple—the finest perfume you’ll ever find. The second run added three more pints to the pantry.
I have none of the equipment of big-time sugarers. My neighbor to the south leases her maples to a sugarer who sets more than 6,000 taps connected with a network of plastic tubing. A vacuum pump pulls sap from the trees into a main line that feeds the sugarhouse below. A reverse osmosis machine removes about half the sap’s water before it enters the oil-fired evaporator, and the maple syrup is stored in 50-gallon drums.
The beauty of buckets is that I can see the sap each tree yields. When I collected the sap yesterday, one tree produced so much more than the others that I was chagrined to find it overflowing its top. The maple by the house was dormant several days ago when the others were flowing strongly, but its bucket was nearly full yesterday. A maple-wise friend said that the soil by the house, more open to the elements than the forest soil, likely froze more deeply, slowing the sap run. On cool days, the sap barely drips from any of the trees; on warm days, each tree drums its own sappy beat. The anonymity of plastic tubing would mask all this.
I boil the sap all evening, then let the stove die down overnight and get back at it the next morning. The two big pots sit atop the hottest part of the woodstove, and they boil steadily, when I remember to keep the stove stoked. The third pot simmers, and I add that hot sap to the other pots as they boil down, then refill it with fresh sap from the pails until all the sap is gone. By early afternoon on the day after I began boiling, I am down to just two inches of sweet sap in the two main pots. I watch it carefully, since it is nearing the point of becoming syrup. Too much boiling and it reaches the candy stage or, a whole lot worse, burns in the pan, wasting the sap.
As the sap’s sugar content increases with evaporation, so does its boiling point. When the syrup is done, it boils at 7.5 degrees above the boiling point of water (which varies with altitude—here in Lincoln, at 1,500 feet, water boils at between 209 and 210 degrees). Though I’ve used a candy thermometer in the past, I don’t have one this time around, so I use an older method to test doneness. A metal spatula or spoon, dipped in hot sap, will drip off immediately. When the sap reaches the syrup stage, the consistency shifts—not dramatically, but enough to notice if you pay close attention. When I lift the spoon from the hot syrup, it will fall away as a sheet—just for an instant—before splitting into droplets.
At last comes the moment when I see the telltale sheeting. I pour the hot syrup into mason jars and tighten the lids, which seal with a pop as the syrup cools. The filled jars are beautiful, there on the window sill, daylight playing on the syrup’s amber hues. My third batch of syrup is as light in color as the first, which surprises me, since I thought that syrup darkens as the season progresses and chemistry changes. But the syrup’s color is yet another joyful mystery of the season.
Sugaring season is over now, at least for me. Though I likely could have drawn a bit more sap, I have as much as I want. I use the claw end of a hammer to gently pull the spiles. Yet another gift from the non-stop potlatch of existence rises and passes. In its wake, I’m left with boundless gratitude for my neighbor maples, along with several jars of their liquid gold.