Christie's Corner

Christie's Corner
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Ontario, Canada
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June 02
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I'm a professional food writer with a penchant for gadgets and more cookbooks than sense. Join me as I push my newly renovated kitchen to the limits. It's just me, a camera and enough curiosity to keep a blog going for years... My motto: Real food. Real life. It ain't always pretty.

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Salon.com
Editor’s Pick
MARCH 15, 2012 12:04PM

Maple Syrup – The Ultimate Slow Food

Rate: 16 Flag

Maple trees in Ontario, tapped for making maple syrup

Maple trees in Ontario, tapped for making maple syrup

Jo Marie's maple tress tapped for sap.

When I was nine, we moved to a house with two huge maple trees in the side yard. Years before, someone had tapped the trees and left the spiles in the trunk. Intrigued by the metal protruding from the bark, I asked my mother what they were for. When she explained, I blithely suggested we make our own maple syrup. Without even pretending to consider my request, Mom said no. At the time I thought my mother — the woman who baked bread, made pastry and even created hand-dipped chocolates for Easter — was being incredibly unreasonable.

She wasn’t. I now understand why.

Earlier this week, I watched maple syrup being made using sap from the trees pictured above (any many others, not shown). This is not a commercial maple sugar farm. It’s not a small-scale, carefully crafted educational display for school kids. This is Jo Marie’s* 100-Acre woods just outside the city centre. Every year, she invites George Brown culinary students to her farm to see, first-hand, how maple syrup is made. I came along for the fun. As did Jonsie, Cooper and Missy —three dogs who were totally convinced we couldn’t do the job without them. It was so much fun, Jonsie couldn’t keep the smile off his face.

Jonsie, always ready to help

Jonsie, always ready to help with any and everything.

I realize I should learn to install a slide show. Maybe later. I make no promises. Until that happens, let’s just call this post a photo essay. I’ll explain as we go. DIYers, please note, this isn’t a how-to piece. I am not giving advice or providing the nitty-gritty details to make your own. This is just a glimpse into what it takes to make maple syrup — assuming you have a big lot, plenty of trees, tons of brush, an 8′ x 3′ pan (yes, that’s feet and not inches), cinder blocks and a whole whack of patience.

Jo Marie calls maple syrup the ultimate slow food since the work begins almost a year before the sap runs. In April, they begin collecting brush and keep at it until they’re ready to collect sap. They need two huge brush piles, each about 10′ tall. You can see the kind of brush used in the photo below.

The large green containers are filled with sap. (Jo Marie refuses to call them “garbage pails”, even though this is what they are designed for originally. These are dedicated to maple sap, so I will call them BGSBs (Big Green Sap Buckets) for short.)) All of the BGSBs are — or were — full to the brim. It will all be boiled down over the course of a few weekends.

Maple sap to be boiled down.

Pails of maple sap. Jack shows us how full they are.

While the boiling takes hours, the sap collection takes just as long, if not longer. Each bucket contains only a small amount of sap.

Jack helps collect sap

Jack helps us collect the sap.

Each bucket fills drop by drop.

The flow depends on the weather. This year the sap flowed quickly. I timed the drips. One every two or three seconds.

Sap drips into a bucket

Sap collects one drop at a time.

Even though the sap looks like water, it tastes only faintly of  maple. It’s hard to believe this clear, almost tasteless liquid boils down into the dark, distinctively-flavoured syrup we pour on pancakes.

Maple sap collecting

Sap has the colour and consistency of water.

Jo Marie’s property has so many trees you can’t haul the sap in buckets. So, they have motorized gear.

Sap tank

Bringing in the heavy machinery. Cooper herds.

The small sap buckets are emptied into bigger buckets, which are then emptied into the tank, which is then driven back to the boil point where it is syphoned into the BGSBs. And we have barely begun the process.

Maple sap poured into a tank to be driven back to the boil area.

Maple sap is poured into the large tank. It will be driven back to the boil area.

The sap is stored in BGSBs until there is enough to boil. If it’s cold, the sap will freeze and you have the luxury to time to collect lots for a boil. But if the weather is mild, the sap can ferment, which means it’s wasted. Fortunately, the nights have been cold enough to keep the sap chilled.

Once filled with sap, the BGSBs are too heavy to lift . Here, a student ladles sap into a smaller bucket. This, too, takes time.

Transferring sap for boiling

Transferring sap for the boil.

Pouring sap into the boiling pan

Pouring sap into the boiling pan.

Once enough sap has been transferred, the BGSB is gently emptied into the boiling pan. Even half-full, it’s so heavy with sap two strong adults are needed. As a small, not-so-strong person, I just stood by and took photos.

Jo Marie’s pan is about 8′ x 3′ and sits on cinder blocks. The brush is stuffed under the length of the pan to ensure even heat distribution.

Commercial operations boil sap around the clock, but her family makes batches on weekends. They start the fire at about 8 AM and finish the syrup about 3 PM. This happens every weekend until the sap runs out. The season is usually three to four week’s long, but depends heavily on the weather.

Maple sap boiling off

Maple syrup boiling away. That white stuff is steam from the sap, not smoke from the fire.

The trick is to keep the sap boiling, but not let it burn. This can happen as quickly as whipped cream can turn to butter, so someone has to be on hand to at all times to watch the syrup.

Maple sap boiling

Maple sap boiling in the pan.

Even when the syrup is “done,” it’s not done. Because it’s cooked outside in the open air, the syrup is full of bark chips, ash and other particles. It must be stained through a thick filter.

Filter for maple syrup

The thick, filter for maple syrup.

And when it’s been filtered it’s still not done. The syrup must then be boiled down again on the stove top. The ideal temperature is 104°F, so you need to keep an eye on the syrup.

Why not just boil the sap inside and save yourself the trouble of collecting wood and straining ash? Jo Marie did that the first year she attempted maple syrup. It produced so much steam and moisture her ceiling collapsed.

Another year, the shelf holding 60 to 80 mason jars of her homemade syrup collapsed. Not a single jar survived the crash. I’d have given up, but Jo Marie is made of stronger stuff and this is the result.

Homemade maple syrup

A jar of Jo Marie's homemade maple syrup.

By the time the syrup is in jars, each gallon takes 40 to 50 hours of work. Jo Marie calls this a “hobby.” I call it a labour of love.

This year’s batch isn’t finished yet, so I can’t tell you how it turned out. Based on previous results, Jo Marie’s method produces a richer, slightly smokier syrup that puts the supermarket brands to shame.

I’m not about to make my own syrup. But I have a deeper appreciation for what goes into it. Waffles will never be the same again.

*Jo Marie Powers is a co-founder of Cuisine Canada. She’s one of the most amazing women I have ever met. If she offers you one of her famous maple sugar candies, take it. You will experience a tiny bit of heaven and history all in one bite.

Update: Even more photos can be found on my Tumblr.

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Comments

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Fascinating! And now I want pancakes.
Loved this! I remember my cousins up in Canada tapping the trees and letting me take a swallow of the sap out of a bucket. Sweet, thin, yellow, with a definite 'plantlike" (I don't want to say vegetable) taste They sent the sap somewhere to be boiled, a dangerous job. I think everyone who likes real maple syrup ought to make an effort to buy as big a jug as they can afford. Who knows if there'll be any real maple syrup in the future?
Great post!

Around here most people use tubing instead of buckets and the sap all runs to a central point. People around here will be collecting and boiling, and I gotta get out and get some pix of my own.
Great work. See, it's a lot of work to even write about making the stuff, much less go out and actually make it. Maple syrup! My favorite. Accept no substitutes. I use it to make my sweet potato maple muffins.
This was great! Very enjoyable and interesting.
Congrats on the EP!
Great pictures and I agree this is a labor of love!
Great photo essay. Jonsie has such an engaging look on his face! Loved him. Should have shown him with a fork and that fat stack that Cedar longs for! Rated with RRR
Like Cedar, I found this fascinating. Being from Texas the only thing I know about maple syrup is which shelf it is on at the grocery store. Thanks for this post!
Love real maple syrup, and thankfully, I live in MN. We get the real stuff here at farmers' markets.

And I had one of the finest dessert experiences of my life in Grand Marais, at the amazing Angry Trout Cafe, where they offer a shot-glass of warmed maple syrup as a dessert. I was skeptical until I tried it.

Now I'm an enthusiastic advocate.

(Look for "Grade B" syrup, which is darker and more flavorful, despite the second-place implications. Thank me later.)
brilliant! I've done the sugar shack thing here in Ontario as well, but it was in Quebec that I saw the whole shlemiel for the first time. So cool!
Nothing like the real stuff for the sweet tooth.
You nailed this one and I agree with you all the way from the tree to the table.
.........(¯`v´¯) (¯`v´¯)
☼•*¨`*•.¸.(ˆ◡ˆ).¸.•*
............... *•.¸.•* ♥⋆★•❥ Thanx & Smiles (ツ) & ♥ L☼√Ξ ☼ ♥
⋆───★•❥ ☼ .¸¸.•*`*•.♥
Thanks for this, made we want some right now. I must say as a Southerner, when I saw the headline "Ultimate Slow Food", I thought of BBQ.....
Mmmmmmm! Great photos and great info -- Thanks! [r]