Updated: Mar 23, 2020
The other day, I sat down to write out the first draft of my blog. Here is the first paragraph from it:
‘It is a blue sky out my window, with an occasional cloud; the sun is shining, and the wind is blowing. There’s not really any snow, if any, left to speak of.’
Well. That’s not really the case anymore…in fact, it is now the complete opposite:
It is a gray, overcast sky out my window, with no glimpses of the blue beyond; I don’t see the sun, and the trees are still. The ground has a coating of snow from this morning, and now it’s raining.
Not to dash anyone’s hopes ~ this is Spring.
This is supposedly the end of winter, and the beginning of the new season. It is in this season that the plants and the trees begin another year, and soon the leaves will be out. But before the leaves, there are buds, and before the buds there is sap. Sap is the life of the tree, stored for the winter in its roots. As the days get warmer, the sap rises through the trunk up to the branches, and life begins. Now, those of you who know, are probably guessing where I am going, as you know about maple syrup…but maple trees are not the only trees that produce this edible sap—some other trees that do are the English Walnut, Black Walnut, and Birch.
But for now we are concerned with the sap of Maple trees. It is in this time frame that maple syrup makers ‘tap’ the trees. My grandfather, The Old Man, is one of these producers, he puts out around 600 taps per year.
So, sometime in February or March, a bunch of the family gets together, and we all go off in the pickup truck, armed with buckets, spiles, drills, and hammers. We arrive at old houses around town, and holes are drilled in the maple trees. The sap is already flowing, and often is dripping down the tree bark from the hole before the spile is put in. The spile is basically a metal tube that is pounded into the tree with the hammer, and then a bucket is hung on it. Now, the sap drips into the bucket. Next, a cover is put over the bucket to keep out the rain and leaves (and snow).
Once enough sap is collected in the bucket, normally in a day, you head out with a large gathering tank in the bed of the pickup and a handful of gatherers (usually enough to fill two vehicles) and head out to ‘collect’. Trudging along from tree to tree with a gathering-pail in either hand, emptying sap from the buckets on the trees, and bringing it back and pouring it into the tank on the truck. Once all of the buckets have been emptied, the sap is brought back to the sugar house.
Inside the sugar house is the evaporator. This is a large metal pan, sitting over the ‘arch’, which is like a big wood-stove.
In this, the sap is boiled, which evaporates the water, increasing the percentage of natural sugar found in the sap. Once the sap has been heated and condensed to the right point, it becomes the golden-brown colored maple syrup we all know.
Maple syrup making is an old tradition in northern North America, and New England is no exception. It will be around for a long time, too. And the maple trees we are tapping even now will most likely out live us—someday, some sawyer will saw boards out of those same trees and find that in 2020 the tree was tapped with a 7/16” spile, and sell those boards to a furniture maker as "Tap Hole Maple", and it will be a stamp in history from a group of New Englanders.
Photo credit: The Old Man (Annie Valliancourt)
All other: Ian Dunn