It began as a simple aside. Years ago, a friend was visiting, and casually commented that since there were maple trees on the property, come next year I could be making my own maple syrup. …
It began as a simple aside. Years ago, a friend was visiting, and casually commented that since there were maple trees on the property, come next year I could be making my own maple syrup. Hmmm.
“Really?” I responded. “What a festive idea!” and let it go at that. Little did I know what was in store.
Surprised that I even survived the winter, I observed the snow melting and began to notice plumes of steam rising into the atmosphere from various farms scattered all over the county.
“That would be sap boiling,” was the answer from the very talented and fabulous Ellany Gable. “It’s maple syrup time.”
I began to muse. “Was it really possible to make my own maple syrup from my own maple trees in my own backyard?” The idea seemed ludicrous, yet alluring.
Ludicrous ideas are probably better off left to their own devices, methinks. Hindsight? 20/20.
Apparently, it was possible. There are literally hundreds of sites dedicated to teaching you how to produce maple syrup.
Remember Lucy stomping grapes? Child’s play.
According to Randall B. Heiligmann at Ohio State University, the process is simple. A few necessities: a drill for the spouts (aka spiles) being used, buckets or bags, plastic tubing, elderberry stems (??), gallon jugs, storage tanks, and various and sundry pans, pots, canning jars and materials for straining the boiled sap during the last steps of the process. Hmm.
It did not occur to me to read all of the instructions, or feel as if I needed to follow them to the letter. I don’t stop at a gas station to ask for directions—why then, would I stop by a farm and ask for helpful hints? I guess I simply assumed that I could do my own version. Tap the tree and the sap will flow.
Having (admittedly) skimmed my manual, I overlooked that this process should always be conducted outdoors. “The raw sap needs to be boiled at temperatures in the range of 200-230 degrees F. Steam given off during boiling carries small amounts of sap and syrup that can be very sticky.” Hmm.
I drilled. I tapped. I waited. Unless weather conditions are idyllic, there can be days when there is no sap flow. Other days can produce up to several gallons of raw sap from a single tree. “This,” I told myself, “explains why three ounces of genuine, honest-to-God maple syrup costs $28.”
The trees and buckets must be checked constantly, since there are very strict time frames involved. Too cold out? No sap for you! Too warm out? Sap can turn rancid on you in a New York minute. Too busy to check the buckets? Bucket (and highly prized contents) will overflow and attract insects of every shape and size.
The sap flow began slowly. I’m guessing my fingers were a bit sticky and I must have missed page 11 of the manual.
Elated that I had collected around five gallons of raw materials, I unglued the pages, only to discover that it takes 43 gallons of sap to produce ONE GALLON of syrup. And in order to produce the syrup, I needed to boil the sap between 16 and 28 hours at a time, adding sap to the pot as I went along, reducing it to a mere fraction of the opening bid. Hmm.
I figured, “Can’t hurt to try, I’m already a bit sticky,” and so I began. Setting up the fire outdoors, I found that to reach the temperatures necessary for a continuous roiling boil, I then had to check my pots on a minute-to-minute basis, and continue to add raw sap as the liquid boils down, and stoke the fire.
I move the process indoors “just for a minute,” to see if I could speed it up. Well, it boiled on the stove all right. “I have a vent,” I told myself, as the steam rose into the air. I forgot that I have 16-foot ceilings.
I put the timer on for 30 minutes as I worked at the computer. I continued to add sap per instructions, and felt quite pleased with myself that (against all warnings) the boiling method indoors seems to have great advantages.
About five hours in, I noticed that the air in the kitchen seemed, well, moist.
As I gazed at the 16-foot ceiling, something clear and warm dripped onto my face. I looked up again. I screamed.
“Hmm, guess I oughtta get that sap outdoors again,” I gasped, as I raced around the house, sopping up what had become a continuous downpour of steam, sap and syrup literally raining down on me (and of course, the dog).
I threw out the Teflon pot, tossed my shoes into the trash and began again, more determined than ever before.
I will not let a tree get the best of me, regardless of how sticky it wants to be. I dedicated items of clothing to the event. Just call me Mr. Sappy Pants.
Five days and many, many gallons of raw, undiluted, tasteless sap later, it reached critical mass, and the once-clear liquid was about to experience the magic of molecular change from sap into syrup. Having skipped page 14 altogether, I was unaware that this “miracle” took place within a three-minute time frame, and if you miss it, you have a gooey, sticky, burnt piece of rock-hard maple candy at the bottom of your (destroyed) Teflon pot. Hmm.
I called my mother in hysterics, to inform her that I had not slept for days and that I was quite possibly in over my head. I hauled sap, I boiled. And boiled. I spilled sap down the front of my shirt. On my shoes. On the dog. I stepped in (clear) sap and walked through the house. I picked bugs out of buckets and then boiled a bit more. At this point, I had successfully produced over one ounce of maple syrup and “was done,” I shrieked at my poor mother. “Done. No more syrup!”
She asked me how it tasted. Tasted? Had not occurred to me to check. After the six times straining through gauze and spending two days cleaning the floor (and dog), and tossing my second pair of sticky sneakers into the trash, tasting it was the last thing on my mind.
I hung up the phone and approached the jar that held over one ounce of golden liquid, and stuck my finger in. I tasted it. I swooned. I think I wept for a brief, shining moment. I picked up my drill and my taps and my buckets and marched my sorry self out into the yard. Had a brief chat with the trees and apologized for any outbursts.
Everyone I spoke to wanted samples, even when I assured them I had produced enough syrup for (possibly) one pancake. Which I don’t even eat. Hmm.
After two weeks, after spending hundreds of hours boiling, straining, collecting, cajoling, crying and throwing away clothing, I had around eight ounces of syrup. But it was no store-bought high fructose corn syrup, cellulose-gum concoction. It was, IMHO, a sticky, gooey slice of heaven in a jar.
That was my life, my raison d’etre, the reason why I was put on earth.
I had tasted the nectar of the Gods and was undaunted in my task. I would, come hell or high water, make enough syrup to have French toast some weekend. (Or die trying, whichever came first.)
As far as sending syrup to all my friends? Yeah, right—as soon as they start spinning straw into gold.
When I told my pal Greenlee that it had been on my bucket list to make maple syrup before I died, he pointed out that it was probably the only thing on my list that required an actual bucket. Hmm. Food for thought.
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