Monday, March 28, 2011

Maple Syruping in the City

The end of winter is the start of maple syruping season. You know those country postcard style buckets hung on sugar maple trees, slowly collecting sap from the side of a tree? Well, you don't have to be in the woods in Vermont to do it, all you need is a big sugar maple and the right weather. Growing up in a New England city, I never actually saw this process as a kid. It wasn't until my son started preschool a few years back in the city of New Haven that I got to witness this incredible food experience. A huge old sugar maple towering over the playground was the object of affection for a wonderful group of teachers waiting excitedly for just the right moment to tap it with the kids and make syrup for a school pancake breakfast. Despite a life time of experience in food, I had to go back to preschool to learn how to make maple syrup.

The biggest surprise: it takes 40 gallons of clear sap to make 1 gallon of amber syrup. Yes, that is why it is so expensive. It also takes perfect and uncontrollable weather conditions: end of winter, warm days with nights dropping below freezing for the sap to flow well. This was a good year, last year however was horrendous.  

I didn't make it out into the countryside for a bucolic maple syrup festival, but rather I visited Common Ground School, an urban charter school on the back side of West Rock park land. They had an actual syrup evaporator, which slowly warms the sap in 3 chambers until it reaches the perfect temperature and density.
Walking past the school to the trees. can you believe we are in the city?!
The sap buckets. It takes about three days to fill one bucket.
Sap for sampling. It tastes like water with a faint hint of maple. Whoever thought of boiling this down for hours to make syrup was either a genius, or had a lot of time on their hands, or both.
A maple syrup evaporator. The top chamber is for fresh sap, which moves through each consecutive chamber getting heated to temperature and reducing enough to move to the next chamber, so you are never adding cold sap to hot syrup. 
Two kinds of thermometers are need for syrup making, one for temperature, one for density.
A rainbow of syrups from sap to finished product.

Hope this inspires you to do some maple tapping in your city next year! 
Look up how to do it online, or search for a maple syrup festival near you.


  1. We went to a conservation area in a Toronto suburb a couple of weeks ago with the kids to watch how the pioneers boiled sap to make syrup over wood burning fires until grandma decided it was ready. Then it would be strained through grandpa's old shirt or something to remove the sandy sugar and any stray leaves or what-not. Then we inhaled a stack of syrup-drenched pancakes, some maple fudge (!!!!), maple sugar candy, and leaf-shaped maple sugar lollipopos. Oy. Emmett has a colouring book that tells how a North American Indian woman accidentally discovered syrup when she decided to cook some meat in sap instead of water. Sounds like an iffy explanation to me, though.

    I told Emmett about Ayo going maple syruping too and he really wants to go together now!

  2. There are many legends and stories about how syrup making started. Some people say native Americans watched squirrels chewing boughs. Some say a tree was damaged in a storm and leaked sap and someone realized it was tasty. Anyway, I wanted to mention that the first technology used to make syrup was freezing sap (gets rid of water content) then stones were heated and put into bark baskets full of sap. Many kinds of trees were tapped. Also cones of sugar were a coveted trade item with people who lived outside of the Eastern Woodlands and later with Colonial Europeans. A good source for seeing the bark cone molds is the fantastic website Nativetech. Also, I thought you'd appreciate this legend.

    Gluskabe Changes Maple Syrup
    An Abenaki Legend

    Long ago, the Creator made and gave many gifts to man to help him during his life. The Creator made the lives of the Abenaki People very good, with plenty of food to gather, grow, and hunt. The Maple tree at that time was one of these very wonderful and special gifts from the Creator. The sap was as thick and sweet as honey. All you had to do was to break the end off of a branch and the syrup would flow out.

    In these days Gluskabe would go from native village to village to keep an eye on the People for the Creator. One day Gluskabe came to an abandoned village. The village was in disrepair, the fields were over-grown, and the fires had gone cold. He wondered what had happened to the People.

    He looked around and around, until he heard a strange sound. As he went towards the sound he could tell that it was the sound of many people moaning. The moaning did not sound like people in pain but more like the sound of contentment. As he got closer he saw a large stand of beautiful maple trees. As he got closer still he saw that all the people were lying on their backs under the trees with the end of a branch broken off and dripping maple syrup into their mouths.

    The maple syrup had fattened them up so much and made them so lazy that they could barely move. Gluskabe told them to get up and go back to their village to re-kindle the fires and to repair the village. But the people did not listen. They told him that they were content to lie there and to enjoy the maple syrup.

    When Gluskabe reported this to the Creator, it was decided that it was again time that man needed another lesson to understand the Creator's ways. The Creator instructed Gluskabe to fill the maple trees with water. So Gluskabe made a large bucket from birch bark and went to the river to get water. He added water, and added more water until the sap was that like water. Some say he added a measure of water for each day between moons, or nearly 30 times what it was as thick syrup. After a while the People began to get up because the sap was no longer so thick and sweet.

    They asked Gluskabe "where has our sweet drink gone?" He told them that this is the way it will be from now on. Gluskabe told them that if they wanted the syrup again that they would have to work hard to get it. The sap would flow sweet only once a year before the new year of spring.

    The People were shown that making syrup would take much work. Birch bark buckets would need to be made to collect the sap. Wood would be needed to be gathered to make fires to heat rocks, and the rocks would be needed to be put into the sap to boil the water out to make the thick sweet syrup that they once were so fond of. He also told them that they could get the sap for only a short time each year so that they would remember the error of their ways.

    And so it is still to this day, each spring the Abenaki people remember Gluskabe's lesson in honoring Creator's gifts and work hard to gather the maple syrup they love so much. Nialach!

  3. amazing! thank you Zevey and Lisa!!!! I miss you both!