The bucket list

JONATHAN CHARLES FOX
Posted 3/27/19

It’s that time of year again. As plumes of steam emanating from sugar shacks dot the landscape here in the mountains, I’m reminded that I once made maple syrup myself. About 10 years ago, …

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The bucket list

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It’s that time of year again. As plumes of steam emanating from sugar shacks dot the landscape here in the mountains, I’m reminded that I once made maple syrup myself. About 10 years ago, a friend noticed that I had a few sugar maples on my property and suggested that I try my hand at it. “Sure,” I said. “How hard can it be?” Undaunted by the terminology I encountered in my online search for instructions, I threw caution to the wind and decided to give it a go. Words like evaporator, hydrometer and reverse osmosis meant nothing, but a pal said she could loan me “a spile or two,” which I looked up in the dictionary when she wasn’t looking: A small tube tapped into a small hole in the tree to carry sap to a bucket, also known as a spigot.

In addition to honey, milk and eggs, the Diehl Homestead Farm produces hundreds of gallons of maple syrup each year. I made less than an ounce of the sticky stuff, which is why I leave it to the professionals.

 “I have a couple of buckets in the basement,” I said. “Sounds like the tree does most of the work.” According to the internet, it was possible. I printed out a few pages and made my way into the woods. I drilled. I tapped. I waited. “Unless weather conditions are idyllic,” I read, “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.” At first, it was pretty cool. While waiting for the buckets to fill, I gathered the necessities: Gallon jugs, pots for boiling and materials for straining got crossed off the list in order. “The trees and buckets must be checked constantly,” I read “since there are very strict time frames involved.” Too cold out? No sap. Too warm out? Sap can turn rancid on you in a New York minute. Too busy to check the buckets? You’ll find them overflowing and attracting insects of every shape and size.

“The raw sap needs to be boiled at temperatures in the range of 200-230 degrees. Steam given off during boiling carries small amounts of sap and syrup that can be very sticky,” my manual informed. As visions of log cabins and flapjacks danced in my head, I began the boiling process after collecting about five gallons of raw sap. “Oh, this is insane,” I thought. “I’m moving the operation indoors. What can it hurt? I’m already sticky.” So sticky, in fact, that I missed page 11 of my manual altogether. I unglued the pages only to discover that it takes “43 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup,” and that, in order to produce said syrup, I needed to boil somewhere between 16 and 28 hours at a time, adding sap to the pot as I went along. Oy. Well, it boiled on the stove all right. I continued to add sap to the pot and felt quite pleased with myself that, against all warning, boiling indoors appeared to have great advantages. “Besides,” I thought, “I have 16-foot ceilings, what could possibly go wrong?”

When I popped into the Diehl Homestead Farm to buy my maple syrup from the pros last weekend, I found Shelby Diehl and Michaella Burr shrouded in steam, where the sap was being boiled in the sugar shack, rather than inside the house.

About five hours in, I noticed the air in the kitchen seemed sort of steamy and moist. Glancing upwards, something clear and warm dripped onto my face, and I suddenly understood the reason for making syrup outdoors. I had sap on the ceiling, sap on the floor, sap on my sneakers and sap on the dog. Panicked, I moved the operation outdoors again, but much of the damage was done. I threw out a few pots and tossed my jeans in the trash, calling my mother to inform her that I hadn’t slept in days and was “in over my head.” At this point, I had successfully produced about one ounce of maple syrup and was “done!” I yelled into the phone. “I’m over it!” She asked me how it tasted. Tasted? In my hysteria, it had not occurred to me to check. After six strainings through gauze, spending two days cleaning the floor 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 stuck my finger in the jar, swooning as the golden nectar lingered on my tongue—a magical elixir that I, alone, created. In the aftermath, friends asked me for samples, refusing to believe that I had only produced enough syrup for one pancake. “Yes, it tastes amazing, (IMHO), but I’m never doing that again,” I told Mom the next day. “I’m leaving it to the professionals, like the nice folks at the Diehl Homestead Farm,” I said.

“Sounds like a good idea” she laughed. “I’ll even buy you a new bucket, so you can cross it off your list.”

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