Thursday, February 18, 2010

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Sap’s a Runnin’

When it freezes at night and thaws during the day, most of us want spring to hurry up and arrive. Not the maple syrup makers in Wellesley and Weston. This weather is ideal for them to drive around with taps and buckets to gather sap from local sugar maple trees.

Making maple syrup is a beloved seasonal rite at Land’s Sake in Weston and the Natick Community Organic Farm (NCOF), which each year taps dozens of trees around Wellesley. Each group gathers sap from local trees with the help of schoolchildren and volunteers, and then makes syrup by boiling it down. In this labor-intensive process, it takes 40 to 50 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. The reward for this patience is not only the syrup itself, but a closer connection to gathering and producing a classic New England treat.

“Maple syrup gives us an opportunity to teach a lot about how people lived. It’s a fun way to learn,” said Ursula King, a Wellesley resident and NCOF Coordinator of School Programs.

Native Americans were the first to tap sugar maple trees for their sap. They called the period when the sap started to run the “Sugar Moon.” Since they didn’t own kettles, their method for boiling sap was both primitive and ingenious: They dropped super-hot stones into wooden or clay troughs containing sap, which heated the sap to boiling. When possible, they evaporated the sap into blocks of sugar, similar to the maple sugar candy that we see today. It was easier for them to carry sugar than a liquid.

The Natives taught the first settlers in Massachusetts to make syrup. The settlers used copper kettles set over open fires to boil the sap. At first, this was the only sweetener available to many of them, as molasses and refined sugar had to be imported. Initially, they also made blocks of maple sugar instead of syrup. King says they stirred these blocks of sugar into all kinds of food, even beef stew. As the colonists became more established and could more easily store liquids, they began to use the syrup.

Maple syrup has been a favorite regional food ever since. “Before the bud swells, before the grass springs, before the plow is started, comes the sugar harvest. It is the sequel of the bitter frost; a sap run is the sweet goodbye of winter,” wrote nature essayist John Burroughs in 1886.


A few of the farm’s 600 sap buckets awaiting deployment


Sugar maples only grow in a limited area from the Northeast to the Midwest, roughly bounded by West Virginia, southern Canada, and Minnesota. Commercial operators now gather the sap in tubes, but the small-scale operations in Wellesley and Weston use old-fashioned spiles (metal spouts that are drilled into the tree trunks) and buckets with covers to keep out rain and debris.

One of the smallest but most dedicated producers is Will Jacobs, 16, a student at Concord Academy. He taps about 20 trees each year at his family’s Weston home to make syrup as a hobby. It all started about seven years ago, when Land’s Sake asked permission to tap some of the family trees, and Jacobs became interested in doing it himself. He inserted a couple of taps. After bringing in the sap to boil on the kitchen stove, he quickly moved operations to an outdoor vat designed for turkey frying.

“When you boil the sap on the stove, some sugar does go into the water vapor. By the end of the season, you will have a sticky house and an angry mom,” he explained.

Now, during maple season, he runs his propane-fueled vat for 12 to 14 hours per day. His typical yield is six gallons of syrup. “Many people try it for a year, and say it’s a lot of work, and not worth it,” he says. Not Jacobs. Every year, he expands his operation a little bit because he enjoys doing it. He gives some of the syrup to friends and some to Land’s Sake. He uses it himself, but mostly on pancakes. “I’m a picky eater,” he admitted, laughing.

Lynda Simkins, executive director of NCOF, has seen people put maple syrup to more creative uses in her 30 years of tapping trees in the area. “Kids have put it on their mashed potatoes or in goat’s milk,” she said. Some also stir maple into tea, or into fresh snow to make slushes.

At NCOF, making maple syrup is part of the farm’s educational mission. Throughout March, the farm leads maple sugaring tours for families, Girl and Boy Scouts, school groups, and anyone who is interested. Weather permitting, people can visit some of the 400 sugar maples that NCOF taps in Wellesley, Natick, and Sherborn. Here, they can sample a little bit of raw sap, which tastes like slightly sweet water, as it only contains about three percent sugar. At the farm, they can stop by the sweet-smelling sugar shack, where sap is boiled down into syrup. “Maple Magic” day, this year set for March 6, starts with a pancake breakfast and includes talks about maple history. NCOF sells its syrup at its roadside farm stand on Route 16 in Natick, as well as at John Dewar in Wellesley and other Metrowest markets.


“Maple Magic” pancake breakfast agriculture displays

Land’s Sake in Weston also runs educational maple sugaring programs and sells maple syrup at its farm stand on Wellesley Street. The staff, aided by teams of middle school students, collects sap from about 200 maple trees throughout Weston. The sap is then boiled in an evaporator at the Bill McElwain Sugar House next to the Weston Middle School. Lessons for school groups include history and biology, as well as a visit to the trees and the sugar house. In mid to late March, Land’s Sake hosts a “Sugaring Off” festival, when the first of the season’s estimated 50 to 60 gallons of syrup are available for topping pancakes.

Trees used for making syrup can have good and bad years, just like grapes used for making wine. “It’s all determined by weather – that’s one of the lessons,” says Simkins.

Other things can go wrong, too. Spouts get jammed, and buckets sometimes spring leaks. “I’ve seen the fire left too hot, so you end up with taffy instead of syrup,” says Simkins.

Still, for those who take the time to make syrup, there’s nothing like this deep amber elixir of spring.

Commercially made pure maple syrup comes in different grades, based on both color and flavor. The grades are set by the USDA. According to the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association, no grade is better than another – it’s all a matter of choice. The Association lists characteristics of each one:
• Grade A Light Amber is very light and has a mild, more delicate maple flavor. This is the best grade for making maple candy and maple cream.
• Grade A Medium Amber is a bit darker, and has a bit more maple flavor. It is the most popular grade of table syrup.
• Grade A Dark Amber is darker yet, with a stronger maple flavor. It is usually made later in the season as the days get longer and warmer.
• Grade B sometimes called cooking syrup, is made late in the season, and is very dark, with a very strong maple flavor, as well as some caramel flavor. Because of its strong flavor, it’s often used for cooking, baking, and flavoring in special foods.





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