Comments on life, the universe and everything from an aging Sixties survivor.

Location: Massachusetts, United States

Ummm, isn't "about me" part of the point of the blog?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Adventures of two little saps

The Harrumpher recently wrote about an expedition to the Blue Hills Reservation for a maple sugaring event. I commented there, from experience, that this is definitely a "don't do this at home" sort of activity.

We were relative newcomers to the still-rural village where I grew up. We had not been there long before we noticed, and took part in, sugaring on a couple of nearby farms. It was a logical step, in ten-year-old logic, from that to pestering our parents to let us tap our good-sized stand of maples. It took a year or two, but we wore down the parental units. I think my father caved in to teach us a lesson. My mother, who already did a fair amount of canning, seemed to think it an interesting challenge.

We didn't have the outbuildings my friends' farms had, but we plunged ahead anyway. There were no elaborate arrangements of plastic tubing connecting trees to a common collecting point, for us or anyone. One went out in the woods with buckets, a manual bit and brace, a hammer, nails, and a quantity of galvanised steel spigots ("spickets" in my neck of the woods). Buckets in that town were usually improvised from coffee cans or any other large metal food can, so we had to spend several weeks in advance of the first season collecting cans, punching holes in them, and twisting stranded wire through the holes to make bails. It was probably the only season in which our elementary school cook was popular, because everyone who sugared would kiss up to her to get a few institutional food cans.

Thus prepared, we chose trees large enough for the operation and at the time indicated by the local sap gurus, went into the woods: calf-to-knee-deep in snow, for starters. We drilled our holes, angling slightly upward as we drilled into the tree. Then we drove in the spickets and added a nail if necessary to hold the wire bail. (We didn't put out the buckets until the cry of "sap's runnin'" was heard in the land.) Then we did it again, and again, and again. Our little sugarbush had 30 to 40 trees, no big deal. Moreover, they were swamp maples. Their roots in soft, wet soil guaranteed a low sugar content. One of the nearby farms also tapped swamp maples and took the results philosophically. If my father was trying to teach us a lesson about hard work, he was succeeding.

It got more successful. That little sugarbush produced an amazing volume of sap at peak. We had to get up before school and collect sap, then we rushed home from school to collect it in the afternoon before the buckets overflowed.* Since the trees were in a swamp, the transition from knee-deep snow to knee-deep mud was surprisingly fast.

When we had a reasonable quantity, we began to boil: in the kitchen.

And boil, and boil, and boil, and boil. When one is boiling in a relatively confined and civilised space like a kitchen, as the product becomes more concentrated, the sugar content of the steam increases. This means that the condensate, on every exposed kitchen surface, leaves a scum somewhat like spillage from a soft drink. We urchins tried valiantly to get out of our share in the removal of this sugar slime, and failed. We didn't do a great job, though, which meant that the kitchen was bedeviled with ants as soon as the weather turned warm. They did a very good job of removing any scum we'd missed, at the price of sometimes having ants fall into the baked beans.

We did get usable maple syrup. I don't recall that we ever tried for maple sugar, which essentially doubles the labour in the kitchen and can smell reaally nasty if it burns. This effort lasted three years, as I recall, when our minds turned to other things.

Despite the work and the mess, we did learn a little about the work involved and the sort of quality control needed to produce a worthwhile product. The lessons stayed with my forester brother more than they did with me. When he moved a good deal further into the woods after marriage and the Marines, he set out in earnest to build up a professional-grade sugarbush and a modern sugar house. He joined a cooperative, and so exchanged better prices on necessary equipment for maintaining strict quality control. His operation covers many acres now and provides (most years) a cash crop.

I'll either go to the store, thanks, or pester him for a quart or so.


*One local kids' dare was drinking sap. Apart from the sanitation issues, unless you've grown up to this sort of thing, you probably don't know that maple sap is a potent diuretic. This activity gave new meaning to "yellow snow."



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