I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s spring at last.
I’ve had a few clues. The ground covering in Wharncliffe is changing from rotting snow to squishy mud. The ravens are squawking duets and building nests.The willows and dogwood are putting out bright yellow and red shoots in optimistic expectation that they will not be shrivelled by frost. But my best proof of spring is the sap run.
We made syrup for a few years, back in the days when I was home all the time and could alternate between the studio and the evaporator in the bush. It’s been a long time since I could do that, but we still put in a tap every spring for our annual tradition of sap tea and sap coffee.
We pick a tree that gets lots of sunshine and put in a single tap. We used to use a steel spile and hang a coffee can or a plastic juice jug on it. This year we used a newfangled plastic tap and a bit of line to run the sap into a five-gallon camp water jug. Every day David goes out to get the sap so we can make tea for breakfast. Sometimes he makes me sap coffee; he doesn’t drink coffee, but he makes it well, whereas I love it, and can’t make it worth crap.
It takes forty gallons of maple sap – and a lot of heat, time and attention – to make a single gallon of maple syrup. Any sugar maple eight inches in diameter can handle a single tap, which is what we use, and ours is giving us two litres a day right now. As a topping for pancakes it’s a bit thin, but it adds a delightful sweetness to the coffee. You have to be careful to under-fill the kettle a bit, because the sugar content means the sap boils at a higher temperature than plain water. It’ll boil right over and make an incredible mess if you put too much in the kettle.
Our ancestors used raw maple sap as a spring tonic. I always thought of a “spring tonic” as a refreshing taste of something that hadn’t been preserved or boiled to death. Just a word of caution here – as delicious as raw maple sap is, a glass of it will leave you feeling far – um – cleaner and possibly less refreshed than you hope. Much, much better to take it in coffee or tea. Trust me on this.
If you leave sap at room temperature, or even much above freezing, it starts to ferment. Eventually you’ll have either maple vinegar or maple alcohol. To keep it, you have to freeze the sap, or boil it down until the sugar content keeps it from fermenting. That’s about when you get syrup. If you cook it longer and beat it, it turns to maple butter. If you can get it to granulate – and I never have – you get maple sugar, which is probably the most delicious treat in the world.
I usually get my syrup from my friends Nancy and David Pease in Shelburne. They make lots of it, and we buy a case every couple of years. Someday, when I’m home again full-time, I may well go back to my small-time production, a couple of dozen litres total. I enjoyed sitting peacefully out by the evaporator while the dog rustled through the bush after squirrels.
In the meantime, for the few weeks that sugaring-off runs, I’ll have my maple sap coffee or tea every day and celebrate the change of the seasons.