Here in Canada we produce nearly 80% of the world’s maple syrup, so it’s the sweetest way for my family and me to eat local.
In case you didn’t know, maple syrup is made from sap of the maple tree. Around this time every year, my family and I go maple tapping – we know the sap is running when the sunlight coaxes the thermometer above zero degrees during the day, but at night the mercury still slumps back below freezing. These temperature swings cause the sap to travel up the trunk of the sugar maple, bringing life to the limbs. Along its journey, we respectfully take a portion to boil down and bring to our table.
A day in the Canadian sugar bush
Our backyard boasts a few trees suitable for tapping, and come March and April we’re making just about everything with maple syrup. We only get a few quarts off our homestead, but our extended family farms a 40-acre sugar bush and that’s where we’re headed today.
It’s a perfect day, with brilliant blue skies and enough sunshine to leave your toque (that’s a knitted cap) and mittens at home. The air smells like wood smoke because my husband’s Uncle, Marc, is the only person I know who boils his sap over a fire in the middle of the forest. It’s as old-school and as marvelous as you can imagine.
Collecting sap is the first order of business. This year the snow is high because of an unusually cold spring. Trekking from the packed trail into the woods to reach each bucket is a heck of a lot more physically demanding than it sounds. But we’re here on a mission.
A quad pulls a sled fitted with a large barrel, and that is what we fill with sap and haul to the boiler. The sap going in is clear, clean and ice cold. The children take frequent drinks and no one discourages them – fresh maple water is high in antioxidants and quite good for you. I like mine boiled with a teabag dunked in and a splash of hot milk. Mmm, maple chai.
A pile of old wooden pallets towers precariously next to a massive cast-iron stove – they are the fuel for the fire that will reduce the sap. It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup, and out here in the fresh spring air is where the magic happens.
To keep our energy levels up, and because the children have been pestering us nonstop, Uncle Marc serves our favourite dessert: maple taffy or “tire d’erable”. Pure maple syrup is reduced until it has reached the “soft ball” stage (115 °C /238 °F) and poured onto packed snow in long strips.
The taffy hardens – but not too much – and then is rolled onto a paddle; this lollipop of pure delicacy is handed to the closest open hand. As far as my children are concerned, there is nothing better.
Out here in the fresh air, the guys have cooked a deep-fried turkey. It awaits carving, on a table laden with maple baked beans, maple ham, venison chilli and maple sausage patties.
I’ve prepared a kale salad with maple-toasted pecans, maple-roasted sweet potato, and maple-glazed bacon – we need a few greens to balance out the rich food.
As the sun begins to slant through the trees, we gather with friends and family, some 30 or so strong, to feast. There is wedding news to celebrate, good health to toast, and new babies to pass around. Not to mention a fantastic dinner to commemorate the occasion.
Desserts prominently feature maple too: maple butter tarts, scones and my mother-in-law’s famous maple pie. One of each, please.
A day in the Canadian sugar bush is the sweetest start to spring and it’s ours for the taking. Until next year!