I'm a sap for maple syrup

During a rainstorm the other day, I noticed a frog hopping across the street.

At the same time, ice on the lake has begun breaking up, much to the delight of boisterous ducks just winging in.

And the sun remains in the sky some two hours longer than on those dark days last December.

Even though we’re likely to have a few more snowstorms and chilly stretches, there’s no question that winter is rapidly on the wane — and, for me, the most reliable and magical harbinger of spring is sap flowing in the maples.

For months, their limbs have been bare and lifeless, their roots embedded in frozen ground that might as well be concrete. Then, one day the majestic trees awaken, the sap begins to rise and I get to work.

As loyal readers may recall, I’ve been making maple syrup for more than a decade, a seemingly simple process discovered by Native Americans.

While production today has become much more sophisticated, it also has become increasingly problematic because of evolving long-term weather conditions. Notice I didn’t use the term “climate change,” which the administration has branded a hoax and banned from all official documents.

Anyway, scientists warn that the narrow window that restricts syrup producers — sap suitable for syrup runs only when temperatures at night dip below 32 degrees and rise above freezing the next day — has begun to close.

A recent study in the journal Ecology found that warmer, dryer seasons have stunted the growth of sugar maples. This could doom the species by the end of the century, cautioned lead researcher Inés Ibáñez, ecology professor at the University of Michigan.

“The biggest trees will still be there, but won't be growing as much and the little saplings won't survive, (so) once the older trees start dying, there will be no new trees to replace them,” she said.

The disappearance of maple syrup may not be as disastrous as, say, rising sea water from melting polar ice caps that threaten to engulf coastal cities around the globe, but it would still leave a bitter taste. So if you want to make syrup while you still can, here’s what you need to do:

Step 1: Using a 5/16th bit, drill three-inch-deep holes about three feet off the ground into the trunks of mature trees. Don’t worry; it won’t hurt them.

Step 2: Use a hammer to tap a spout into each hole. When I first started making maple syrup, I used galvanized metal spouts from which I hung jugs to collect the sap, but the containers often fell off the spouts or became infested with insects.

Last year, I switched to plastic taps shaped into right angles. One end goes into the tree, and the other connects to flexible plastic tubing that I insert through a hole I drilled in the lid of a one-gallon bucket. Thus, every drop of sap from the tap goes directly into the container, which sits securely on the ground. No bugs, no spillage. These taps are available online for about 25 cents apiece from various maple syrup equipment suppliers in the Northeast.

Step 3: Collect the sap. Every day or so, I go from tree to tree carrying a big bucket, and then dump the contents into clean, 35-gallon plastic garbage cans. At this point, most large producers start boiling right away, but since I only tap about 20 trees, I wait until I have enough sap to make it worthwhile.

Step 4 will come in about a week when I hope to have at least 40 gallons of sap (this could be wishful thinking). I pour the clear liquid into three large pots that are designed for cooking lobsters, and start a fire in an outdoor grill I fashioned from fieldstone and a section of wrought iron fence salvaged from a landfill.

Oh, I almost forgot, you need to have assembled a huge pile of seasoned wood, enough to keep a decent fire going for about 10 hours. You could substitute a propane stove, but that gets expensive. Whatever you do, avoid boiling the sap indoors — it’ll turn your house into a steam room and peel away all the wallpaper.

If you’re beginning to think this whole process is a lot of work for precious little syrup, you would be correct — especially when you realize it takes about 40 gallons of sap to produce a single gallon of syrup.

The other day, a curmudgeonly neighbor who listened to my detailed description of the process commented, “It’s a lot easier buying a bottle of Aunt Jemima,” to which I replied … well, actually, I didn’t reply, because making maple syrup is like creating a work of art. If you have to explain the meaning, it loses all value.

Back to Step 4: I invite friends over to help toss logs onto the fire. I cover the pots with metal screens to keep ashes from falling in.

Step 5: Pull the pots off the fire as soon as the syrup reaches its desired sweetness. There are hydrometers for making this determination, just as there is such complex technology as reverse osmosis equipment and evaporators to expedite the syrup making, along with gravity-fed systems for collecting sap, but I’m strictly old school. If it tastes good, it’s ready.

The danger is, if you wait too long, the syrup instantly incinerates into an inedible, charcoal mess, so don’t screw up as I once did.

Step 6: Finally, the fun part: Cook pancakes on a cast iron skillet over the open fire, and serve immediately with generous helpings of fresh syrup.

Nothing on earth tastes better.


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