Pure sweetness: March maple syrup

March 19, 2008

Ahhhh spring…

No matter how much snow is still blanketing the land, when your willow tree begins to turn yellow, you know it’s almost spring. The willows have been growing in New England for nearly 100 million years! The willow tree’s cousin, the pussy willow begins to swell out its own harbinger of spring in its gentle offerings. A bud is one of nature’s profound and heart stirring miracles. Though deep snow, bitter cold and harsh winds may be bending the boughs of the trees, along the branches the tightly wrapped capsules are holding the promise of spring’s light green leaves. Concurrently, the sap inside the trees is beginning to run.

If you live in an area where maple sugaring is practiced, by early March you will begin to see buckets hanging from maple trees or more increasingly, plastic tubing running from tree to tree then down to a large vat. You will also see steam billowing out of the sugar shacks – as the sap is boiled down into syrup and even further into sugar crystals.

The best weather for “sugaring” is a combination of cold nights and warm, sunny days. The practice of boiling down tree sap to make sugar was refined by Native Americans who collected sap in birch bark buckets and boiled it all the way down to maple sugar that they used all year in cooking. Thus the full moon in March was called the maple moon.

It takes 30-50 gallons of maple sap to make one gallon of syrup and one large sugar-maple tree can produce up to 30 gallons of sap in a season! Once the buds begin to burst, the sap stops running and sugaring immediately ceases.

Hundreds of years ago, according to the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association (MMPA), maple sugar was more common than syrup because it was easier to store, and it was an important commodity for both native people and colonists. The Pilgrims learned about maple sugaring from Native Americans, who collected sap in containers made from hollowed-out birch bark or clay, then dropped hot stones in to evaporate some of the water. Another method was to let the sap freeze, leaving behind a sugar concentrate.

Although the most common syrup is maple, other tree saps can be tapped and boiled into syrup as well, the second most common is black birch syrup. Since the buds of the black birch trees open later in the season, those who tap black birch usually do a run or two of black birch syrup after they are finished with maple sugaring. It takes about a hundred gallons of black birch sap to make a gallon of syrup, but it is so special! The syrup of the black birch tastes like wintergreen and makes a delicious cake frosting when blended with powdered sugar.

When the import tax on white cane sugar was removed at the end of the 19th century, cane sugar soon outsold maple sugar. But maple syrup was popular enough that many sugar makers just switched to making syrup. (Even so, they still call the process maple sugaring.)

What makes tapped syrup “Organic”?

There are two main components to certifying syrup making as organic: the management of the sugar bush and the handling of the sap and syrup. According to the “Wild Crop” harvesting section of the National Organic Program (NOP) a wild crop must be harvested in a manner that ensures that harvesting or gathering will not be destructive to the environment, additionally, spraying for pests or rodents is not allowed. No chemical fertilizers or defoliants are allowed, even in the general vicinity of the tapped trees. Organic producers are not allowed to use synthetic de-foaming agents in the evaporation process, so they generally use organic vegetable oil or organic butter for this purpose. The organic inspector follows the boiling process through the system to make sure no non-allowed substances came in contact with the syrup along the way. Therefore, the certified organic syrup you purchase was made with the same intent and integrity of those who developed sugaring several hundred years ago.

For more information visit: http://www.ota.com

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