It may not come with fanfare, pomp and circumstance, but it is never the less a day that I have looked forward to every year for the past 8 years. It’s a slow day, a rewarding day, and, of course, a yummy day. Today is the day we boil down our sap to make our own maple syrup.
To be fair and give credit where credit is due: making maple syrup was something I had, until ~8-years ago, never considered attempting in my life. It’s not something we did when I was kid, it was never anything on my radar as a desire to explore, and, truthfully, I never even considered it as a possibility or option in a rural neighbourhood, mostly due to my general naivety. It wasn’t until some incredibly dear friends of ours, who know who they are (but in case they don’t: they kick-started my catering career with a wedding to remember, one of them taught me how to portage a canoe, and the other recently illustrated a children’s book called Imagine That!, and their names rhyme with Carah and Solin…yeah, they know who they are). One fateful year they invited us over for a boil in their backyard, which blew my mind and opened my eyes to the fact that this is something you can do at home and, just as it is with growing your own vegetables, or providing shelter to your own flock of laying hens, the experience brings you closer to appreciating how nature works and the process involved in getting food in any form onto the table.
Since that fateful day, our household has looked forward every year to breaking out the buckets, watching the taps flow, and committing a day in early Spring to the process of just ‘letting it boil’. In part I think that I enjoy it so much because it’s an activity that forces me to truly slow down. As someone who is always working on projects and ‘tinkering’ or ‘puttering’ about, this is a rather significant achievement, as slowing down is not my forte. But when it comes to a syrup boil there’s not much choice in the matter; at a 40:1 ratio, and the need for careful precision on the temperature of the final product, it’s not as though you can just ‘power through it’ or cut any corners. Nope, it’s a day when we start early and finish late, there are lawn chairs and beverages involved, and there’s not a whole lot else going on. For me, it is rare and I look forward to it, to the point of it being a full-on scheduled event in the calendar.
What has been particularly awesome about the experience this year, however, is the level of interest that Nora is taking in the actual process. She checks the buckets every day, and is so excited to see that we now have more than two full barrels of sap with which to work. She is fascinated by how nature works for all of this to happen; that the sap only flows above 0 degrees, that the buckets on the sunny side fill up faster, and she offers appreciation for the fact that the trees are essentially providing us with their life flow in order to produce something purely sweet and indulgent. The sacrifice that the tree is making, while it isn’t harming the tree, is just one more reason and reminder for why our girls are caring, giving back to, and protecting their environment. It’s equal parts cool and inspiring to watch.
Of course, collecting the sap is only the beginning of, and arguably the least involved part of the process…what comes next is when the fun* really begins. It’s not that the process is overly involved – it’s quite literally watching a pot boil for the next 12 hours, but the event itself is what makes it worth while. In past years we would do our boil over and open fire, pulling up the chairs and playing games, roasting marshmallows, and having a great time in just being outside with friends as we slowly watched the liquid turn to syrup. I reflect back fondly on pictures of our kids, still in a high chair, bundled up around the syrup boil. In the time and years since, we have moved away from the wood fire, but the feeling and emotions of the event are still the same. Rain or shine, we pick a day and watch the magic happen.
*Fun – noun
enjoyment, amusement, or lighthearted pleasure.
I will pause here to issue a significant word of caution: I must implore for anyone who is considering tackling this job for the first time – never, ever, under any circumstances, conduct this boil from start to finish in your house. At some point, yes, you will likely opt to bring it to the stove top for the final, painstaking minutes in which the sap officially transforms from sap to syrup at 219 degrees, but trust me, until the very end, keep the process outside. Think of it like this: you have 40 liters of sugar water that you’ll be evaporating over a long period of time. Now, where does science tell us all that evaporating liquid will go? Even if you’re equipped with the most advanced technology in household ventilation, you will regret that you allowed all of that sticky steam into your house, and I can promise you it will result in a kitchen cabinet reno that you were not planning for.
Now that you’ve gone through the whole process of making syrup, it’s time to break out the waffle maker, the vanilla ice cream, or any other recipe from the myriad of choices you have. Beet salad with maple-roasted pecans and goat cheese. Salmon with a maple glaze. Spiked maple cream in your coffee. Whatever you can dream up! It’s a lot of time for a pretty low yield, so you’ll likely want to keep it yourself, but if you have a little extra, then it does make a lovely gift for friends, family and neighbours. If you share with neighbours, transforming the experience into a whole neighbourhood event, then chances are they’ll let you tap their trees next year too; which is a pretty cool way of bringing people together.
So, if you’re eyeballing those sugar maples in your yard and debating whether or not to give this a try, I cannot recommend it enough to give it a shot. Best case: you enjoy a day creating something delicious. Worst case: you spend a whole day creating something delicious.