Finally, the weather has been just about right: warm, sunny days without a wind that causes the snow to melt in rings around the base of the trees, followed by clear, frosty nights that harden the snow to a stiff crust. The birds seem to sing robustly and there are new voices—the Phoebe calls from the crest of the barn roof, proclaiming his territory. And there is the subtle drip-drip of melting snow off the edge of the shed roof.
The maple trees are thinking of spring as well. All winter, they have hoarded their sugary reserves deep in their roots, waiting for the warming sun to awaken the buds at the furthest tips of their branches. Gray and angular, they have waited this long winter, and now they are primed and ready. Up goes the sap in the warm daytime, then back down again to the roots when the night’s frost is too strong.
The same solar stimulus that excited the maple trees also awakens those hearty northerners who bundle up to trudge through the remaining snow with a bucket full of taps, a sled full of pails, a hammer, a crowbar (for the ones you didn’t put in right on the first try), and a trusty drill. It’s time for the “sugaring” season in the Northwoods—time to crawl out of our winter hovels and spend some time in the woods snitching a bit of that tasty sap on its way up…or on its way down.
But syruping is a finicky business. Some days, the sap will flow enough to pull the buckets right off the taps. Other days, conditions will be grand but the buckets lie empty. Tap too soon and the holes can heal over before the trees really get going. Tap too late and you miss the leading edge of the run, which makes the lightest syrup. Have a bit of a wind or too much rain, and who knows what will happen. If the temperatures don’t get warm enough in the day or stay too warm at night, there’s little hope for a good crop. After a bad drought, it’s best not to tap at all.
Harvesting sap is a bit like asking the maple trees for a blood donation. Folks who know what they’re doing have an inkling for how many taps a tree can sustain, without asking too much. Hearty, spreading grandfather trees might reverently be called “Old Nine-Buckets,” while a new initiate will start with just one bucket. Over the summer, the holes from the taps heal closed, with little more of a scar than a visit from a woodpecker.
Learning how to make maple syrup is one of those processes that is best begun as an apprentice. Our training-in process was with Jim and Jerry, two northwoods characters who couldn’t help but get an itch when spring was on the way. Our tools were primitive in the beginning—a hand-crank antique drill, repurposed cooking oil jugs, a couple ice-cream buckets full of plastic T’s and taps, and some clear hosing. A home-made boiling pan run with propane sent billows of steam into the crisp air from its tarp-enclosed shelter near the edge of the woods. We lugged buckets across the yard and into the back of our van. Those five-gallon buckets looked much bigger then…but I was a bit smaller, as well.
While Jerry was a close neighbor, Jim lived down the road apiece, on a spot overlooking two lakes. His yard was a majestic stand of sugar maples, and we would go and help Jim tap the trees while he followed along on his put-put lawn tractor with the little cart behind full of supplies. Jim would lean on the steering wheal, chuckling, and offering advice.
“You gonna tap that oak tree too?” he teased.
“What?” I stood up, all set to start cranking the creaky drill with the half-worn wooden handle. I take a moment to look at the tree closer. “Oh…” and we both laugh.
“Seems like you were gonna tap that tree last year too! Not sure you’d get much, though.”
Every day, Jim would take the little put-put around with the trailer behind and pick up the day’s sap. We could see his little blue car curving up the slushy driveway and quickly throw on some boots to come out and meet him.
“Well girls,” he’d say, that gypsy twinkle in his eyes. “Didn’t get much today, I think.” Then he’d pop the latch to his trunk and there would be 10 buckets in there, full to the top. We could hardly get them out!
“Aw sure, Jim,” we’d tease right back. And while Jim didn’t eat much syrup himself, he was always giving pints as gifts to nurses and neighbors and other folks who helped him out since his wife had passed. You knew it was that time of year when the phone would ring and that Santa Claus voice on the other end would begin, “Well, girls…”
Jerry had his own particular ways of doing things, and they were very scientific too—about as scientific as watching the drip off a wooden spoon. And not just any spoon would do, it had to be this special one, which had probably been in the maple syrup service since before my grandmother was born.
“Now, you see the curl on the end?” he’d insist, pointing at the spoon.
“On the end of what?”
“On the end of the drip—the drip that’s left hanging on the spoon. It’s got to have that curl, or it isn’t ready yet.”
I’d squint at it a bit while he gave the spoon a good stir in the fragrant, thick liquid.
“No sense in wasting good jars on thin syrup.”
But syrup that is too thick won’t do you any service either—forget trying to match the consistency of the corn-based stuff in the store. Too high a sugar content and it can’t stay in solution. One batch of syrup we canned one spring years back made rock candy on the bottom of the jar. Not that this was such a bad thing…except we couldn’t get the candy out without breaking the jars.
But there’s nothing quite like the smell of a boiling pan of clear sap, watching that curling steam weave its way out into the early spring air…or the taste of the year’s first syrup on a stack of multi-grain pancakes on a frosty morning. While we haven’t made maple syrup on our farm in a few years (losing Jim to cancer rather took the wind out of the process), the early signs of spring bring back the fond memories of neighbors lending a hand in the sugaring process, the sound of the wind in the maple branches, and the taste of homemade maple syrup still hot from the vat.
Here’s a delicious way to enjoy maple syrup beyond pancakes and waffles.
1 salmon fillet
¼ cup Wisconsin maple syrup
1 tsp. paprika
1 pinch cayenne, salt, and pepper
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Whisk together the glaze and brush over the fillet. Place on a greased pan skin-side down and bake for 10 minutes. Brush with more of the glaze and bake for a remaining 3 to 5 minutes or until done. Serve on rice or couscous with fresh greens. Enjoy!
As Jerry would say, “That will sweeten you up.” See you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. northstarhomestead.com