Maple Syrup Time
Tapping a maple tree
I guess if one were to look at it from a different angle, the second coldest April on record has added a few weeks more to the ‘sugaring’ season in Vermont. The flowing of sap in the maple trees, though, is slowing down. In the natural progression of things, we’ll be lucky if we get another full bucket before the spouts dry up until next year. Sap flows best with freezing nights and warmer sunny days. There was speculation that this year wasn’t going to be all that good for the state’s production of maple syrup because of the slow start of winter weather. Some thought that the trees would get all turned around by not having the long, cold dormant months of frigidity that helps to elevate the sugar levels needed for quality maple syrup. That hasn’t been the case. Freeze it did…wicked. It was around New Year’s before we got plunged into the deep freeze. Many farmers set out to tap their trees by mid-February, but my brother Lenny and I always looked at March 1st as the time to start when we were young tappers. We sure didn’t have the set-ups of professionals who now have complex systems of a network of tubing that attaches to the spouts in the holes in their trees (often numbering in the thousands) and join together into a pipeline that delivers sap directly into a boiling tray in a building called a sugar shack. A maple trees is sometimes referred to as a sugar bush. Lenny and I only tapped maybe five or six huge ancient maples that had stood for centuries along the road into town in front of where we lived. All we used was a hand drill, buckets with handles, and we whittled spouts from sumac branches which have soft cores that are easily hallowed out with a red hot wire. We had five or six buckets hanging off of each tree that produced more sap than we could ever boil off on our kitchen stove. It take about forty gallons of sap to produce a gallon of syrup- that’s at least thirty nine extra gallons of water vapor that pervaded the smaller ‘mobile home’ that our dear Mother had moved us all in to. ‘Sugaring’- making maple syrup- at our grandmother’s could be done on any number of stoves in her house: a wood burner in the shed out the back door, a coal/wood combo in the living room, and a big old wood and gas stove in the kitchen that always had something boiling on it, which was the best and I’m sure the inspiration for boiling it down in the trailor. Mom was very succinct in referring to where we lived as “a mobile home-not a trailor”. That didn’t stop our friends from teasing us that we lived in a ‘trailor camp’. Think Mom must have had an affinity with Lucille Ball or something in her dream of mobility. Streamlined, modern and easier to clean than the Victorian farmhouses she grew up in. So she moved all eight of us into a 60′ X 12′ house with wheels. It did have a ten foot extension off of the living room, three bedrooms, tiny dining nook, and a small kitchen with an electric stove she let Lenny and myself boil our sap in. For that- she was a saint. The memory of the sweet, humid scent stayed permanently etched in total recall until…this year.
It has been many years since Lenny’s and my tree-tapping adventures, but since this is the first year back in Vermont during sugaring season, we decided to tap two of the maples along the road out front. Two trees=six spouts. Got sort of a late start around the second week of March. Much of the procrastination was over the conundrum of where to do the evaporating. There is an antique wood stove in the smaller of the two barns, but one certain sugarman didn’t quite think ahead enough to check it out for safety in warmer weather and then the winter’s fire wood got piled in front of it. Henry the Woodchuck probably lives in it anyway. Our friend Addy offered us her Coleman camp stove which we set up on the stone porch. It turned out to be not so effective in that with a small burner, it couldn’t heat our evaporator pan hot enough. That, and with the price of gas being what it is, the production cost for the quart of maple syrup we’ve ended up with could have bought gallons of store-boughten stuff. So in the end, we decided to do it the old fashioned way- on the kitchen stove.
Maple syrup it quite exquisite when it comes from your own trees. It turned out the trees weren’t fooled after all with a high sugar content and all of the wonderful minerals, amino acids and other ingredients that give maple syrup its unique flavor. Vermont is reknown for the quality of syrup produced from sugar maples that grow in the state. These last two weeks of April will host several maple festivals throughout the state to celebrate the season’s harvest. Maple products, pancake breakfasts, maple candy-making demonstrations, parades and even a ‘Sap Run’ in St. Albans in northern VT are all in honor of maple syrup.
Lenny and I were never aware of hazards and all the things folks worry about nowadays. One of them was that maple syrup in those days stood a chance of containing unually high levels of lead. Some of this comes naturally from trees absorbing it through the soil, but more dangerously it came from old metal spouts and pails. Vermonters often have a different take on issues.
But then again, we didn’t use the metal sap buckets and spouts shown in the top picture. We were new into the age of plastics and sumac spouts worked just fine. They still do.
Well- thanks for reading just another page about life in these parts in the Vermont Country Journal. We;ll see you next time and leave you with a little bit of local humor:
A cocky Vermont Department of Highways employee stopped at a farm
and talked with an old farmer.
He told the farmer, “I need to inspect your farm for a possible new
road.” The old farmer said, “OK, but don’t go in that field.”
The Highways employee said, “I have the authority of the State of Vermont
to go where I want. See this card? I am allowed to go wherever I wish on
So the old farmer went about his farm chores. Later, he heard loud screams
and saw the Department of Highways employee running for the fence and
behind was the farmer’s prize bull. The bull was madder than a nest full
and the bull was gaining on the employee at every step.
The old farmer called out, “Show him your card!!