Maple Sugar Season Is Here

I’m going to admit something that could earn me the scorn of my neighbors here in upstate New York: I grew up putting Aunt Jemima on my pancakes. In maple syrup country, that’s akin to putting Velveeta on pizza in Naples. But I promise I’ll never do it again.

It’s maple sugaring season, those few short weeks each year when the nights are cold enough and the days warm enough to make the maple sap flow. Old-timers collect it in metal buckets, which is far more picturesque but less efficient than the modern method of connecting tapped trees by plastic tubing to a single collection source.

In the interest of increasing my maple IQ, last weekend I visited Up Yonda Farm, an environmental educational center in Bolton Landing, New York, for a tour of its small maple syrup operation.

Angela, the guide, told us that the only places on the planet that can produce maple syrup are the eastern provinces of Canada (especially Quebec) and the northeastern United States. The vast majority of the world’s maple syrup comes from Canada. In the United States, Vermont is number one in syrup production, with Maine or New York usually coming in a distant second. Sugar maples have the highest sugar concentration in their sap, though a couple other species of maple can also be used to make syrup.

The Algonquin Indians were the first people known to turn maple sap into syrup, long before Europeans were introduced to it. There are several theories about how they discovered it. The first, and least plausible, is that a Native American chief pulled his tomahawk out of a tree. A container that happened to be at the base of the tree collected the sap that trickled out, and the chief's wife mistook it for water. She boiled dinner in it, resulting in deliciously sweet meat. Other, more likely, theories are that the Native Americans observed animals licking the sap, or that they tasted sap icicles (freezing, like boiling, concentrates the sugars). However they discovered it, Native Americans made syrup by putting heated rocks in the sap, a slow process that evaporated the extra water without burning the sugars.

To tap a maple tree, a small hole is drilled about two inches into the tree trunk and a metal or plastic tap is inserted. I tasted a drop of the sap that was trickling from a spout at Up Yonda, and I was surprised that it was indistinguishable from water.

Once the sap has been collected, it’s filtered and boiled in an evaporator. Some large producers use reverse osmosis to remove some of the water from the sap before it goes into the evaporator, which saves time and energy but which purists believe produces inferior syrup. It takes about 40 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup. The syrup can be further evaporated to make maple cream or maple sugar.

Since I’ve lived in New York, I’ve tasted maple candy, maple cotton candy and maple milkshakes. I've yet to try maple syrup pie, the ultra-sweet Quebec specialty.

If all this sweet talk is making your mouth water, beware: Bloomberg is reporting that demand for real maple syrup is pushing prices though the roof and prompting Vermont restaurants to ration. The culprit: Beyonce Knowles and her maple syrup cleansing diet.

Undeterred? First, you might want to check out this important scientific research: a British scientist has worked out the formula for the perfect pancake.

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