Published March 02. 2013 4:00AM
The whir of a power drill temporarily drowned out the rat-tat-tatting of a nearby woodpecker the other morning as a half-inch steel bit bored through silvery, striated bark and penetrated the trunk of a majestic maple behind our house.
No sooner had I extracted the bit, pulling with it about a quarter-cup of sawdust, than clear sap began dripping from the 2-inch-deep hole as if from a faucet.
Early on in my syrup-production career I would have raced to pound in a spile and attach a collection jug, desperate not to waste a single drop of precious liquid. But now that I’ve been performing this ritual for about a decade I realize a few drops – heck, even a few cups – isn’t going to add much to the final product, considering it takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup. In fact, I let the sap drip for a minute or so before hammering in the spile, or metal spout, to flush out any residual sawdust and debris from the drilling.
The flow of sap never ceases to thrill me, a reaffirmation of life, that somehow we – the maples and I – have made it through another winter.
To be sure other harbingers serve to remind us of the vernal approach – I saw a robin last week, and it won’t be long before skunk cabbage and crocuses, along with, I hope, the garlic I planted last fall, poke through once-frozen soil.
But for me, nothing resonates more powerfully than the flow of sap.
Loyal readers may recall I’ve written about my maple mania in the past, and Day videographer Peter Huoppi chronicled the process from tapping to boiling a couple years ago, so I won’t dwell on details other than to point out it’s bonehead simple but fairly labor-intensive. This is why a gallon of Grade A Vermont syrup will set you back more than $50 – nearly as much as a bottle of Chivas Regal.
And that price is for syrup made by a commercial producer who installs thousands of taps connected to plastic tubing and who use reverse-osmosis machines, large-scale vaporizers and other sophisticated equipment – a far cry from my amateur operation.
A few years ago I half-jokingly computed the price of a gallon of my syrup at about $932.87, based on the hours of toil required to produce such a meager output, even if I “paid” myself minimum wage.
First there’s the tapping of 20-odd trees, which takes a couple hours, depending on snow conditions. This year, thanks to recent rains that washed away most of the drifts, only a few inches of crusty ice remain in shaded areas, but two years ago I had to tramp around in snowshoes to install taps and collect sap.
I also expedited the operation by reluctantly giving up on a hand drill and resorting to a battery-powered model.
Collecting sap also takes several hours, again, depending not just on snow depth but the temperature. Ideally, a combination of sub-freezing nights and warm days causes the sap to rise and fall, and I hope I timed it right this year.
I store the sap outside in 32-gallon barrels that I keep packed in snow to avoid spoilage. Nothing tastes worse than syrup made from fermented sap, or bud sap drawn late in the season that contains too much starch and not enough sugar.
Last, of course, there’s the boiling. I stockpile a mound of brush and firewood next to a stone fire pit I constructed, upon which I’ve placed a section of wrought iron fencing salvaged from the dump that I use as a grate.
Then I pour the sap into a couple of five-gallon pots and begin boiling, adding fresh sap as it evaporates. Last year I made one significant improvement – a metal screen that allows steam to escape but prevents ashes from falling into the pots.
Depending on how much sap I’ve collected – some years as much as 60 gallons; others fewer than 20 – the boiling takes eight to 12 hours. Usually some friends come by to help toss sticks onto the fire and engage in theme-appropriate competition, including wood splitting, log-cutting using a 7-foot-long, two-person crosscut saw and my favorite, ax-throwing at a stump target.
At the end of the boiling process you have to watch the pot like a hawk, or else it instantly converts from almost-ready to unpalatable ashes in a flash. Last year I pulled the pot off the fire a nanosecond before the sap incinerated, and I miraculously wound up with an unbelievably savory concoction that tasted less like maple syrup and more like crème brulee. I doubt if I’ll ever be able to recreate it, or even try because of the high risk of losing everything.
After straining the syrup through cheesecloth, I serve it over griddle cakes cooked in a cast-iron skillet over the fire. Ambrosia.
I hope to reach this stage in about a week, and will keep you posted.