When do I take the pan off the fire?

March 16, 2009

UPDATE:  7 June, 2017

I’m pleased to announce that Dr. Anne-Claire Larochette and her husband Dr. Martin Mallet will join us this morning after Anne-Claire’s graduation at Queen’s before they return to their home and careers in New Brunswick.

Last February a CBC reporter interviewed A.C. on the subject of isolation during winter storms:



Martin and Charlie decided to make syrup this year.  They had done the setup in a couple of hurried trips to the farm jammed in between a wedding, exams, a visit to the U.S. Embassy and grad photographs.  Sunday afternoon the temperature rose and so they showed up at the farm along with Martin’s fiancee, Anne-Claire, to gather the first sap.

They arrived back from the woods euphoric with a load of sap on the Ranger.  “That one little gray tree had both buckets full and overflowing onto the ground, and it’s so small compared to the others!”

With little idea of how to boil the stuff but determined to learn, they ate a quick meal, gave the sap pan a final wash, and made a series of repairs to the ramshackle pile of cement blocks which had served as an arch eight years ago for my last attempt to make syrup.  The blocks were frozen into the ground, of course, and accepted attempts to straighten them only reluctantly.  Much improvisation and effort went into the leveling of the pan.

Everyone dashed about to locate a promising source of fuel.  Charlie and Anne-Claire hauled a load from the woodlot with the Ranger and turned up with the silly grins of a pair of kids who had just discovered the bottom of a mud puddle.  Martin dragged in a bunch of broken fence rails on a small trailer.  I tore into the bed of an abandoned wagon with my chainsaw, narrowly missing a back tire in my effort to avoid nails and bolts.

Called upon to provide instruction in the art of maple syrup boiling, I think I did reasonably well on the building of the fire, but faltered on the climactic question:  “How do I know when it’s time to take the sap off the fire?”

The best I could answer was, “You take it off when you start to feel really nervous about burning the pan.”

Martin took my words of instruction and perhaps gave them more weight than they merited.  As the sun went down and he struggled to keep the fire up, I heard him mutter to himself:  “The problem with doing it for the first time is that you don’t know when to get nervous.”

“When we went into the woods I was torn between two ways to think of the tapping experience:  it was either an idyllic scene with buckets and sap, or one of Charlie, Anne-Claire and me sucking the life out of the forest, draining it.”

I assured him that the maples likely wouldn’t mind a few taps.

Martin’s vigil over the boiling sap was aided by a slick digital thermometer he kept near at hand.  He asked at what temperature the sap becomes syrup.  Neither Mom nor I could remember the precise figure, so Martin dashed into the house to check on the Internet.  He came back a little discouraged.  According to Google and Wikipedia, the answer isn’t at all  straightforward.  About all he could find out is that, “It stays at 212 degrees until all of the water is gone and then it shoots up exponentially until the  pan burns.”

Mom showed an uncanny knack of turning up just when it was time to do something with the fire. Her memories of three generations of scattered sugar making efforts came out when prompted: “When my dad set up his arch he piled sod around the stones to seal in the heat.”  Charlie couldn’t find any sod soft enough to shovel, so he compromised with a pile of soggy ashes Martin had shoveled out of the fire pit.  This primitive mortar worked to seal up the arch and the syrup soon came to a boil.  Stone age technology with digital instruments.

A grad student in clinical psychology, Anne-Claire commented, “People were bemused to hear that we were going to make maple syrup ourselves this weekend, but I am no longer surprised by the adventures that Martin gets me into. He is a born scientist, and his whole life is one experiment after another.  Whenever I learn another method of making food or growing food or hunting, it makes me feel a little bit more safe.  So if there was ever a time where there was no more food in the supermarket, we would still be able to survive and not be dependent upon someone else providing us with food.”

As the evening wore on around the blazing fire, our various points of view emerged on the climactic question of when to take the pan of syrup off the fire.

The psychologist pondered, while peering through the steam, “What if we are past the point of no return and don’t even know it?”

The filmmaker offered, “Let me change the light angle and see if you can see it.”

The biologist pronounced, “The experiment is not complete unless it fails once.”

The teacher yelped:  “Take the pan off the fire, now!”

The unfinished syrup has a delightful flavour and the pan is still intact.  Not a bad day all around, with many more to come.


One Response to “When do I take the pan off the fire?”

  1. helen dakin Says:

    cute. send out little sampler bottles to hungering acquaintances and get a focus group going for (non random and quite possibly biased) taste testers.

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