Ten things I have learned from a week of sugar-making

March 22, 2009

1.  Young adults are night-owls.  Starting work at 7:30 p.m., gathering sap by headlights and boiling all night?  That seems normal for these guys.  They never seem to tire.  Neither do they seem aware of their host’s deep, neurotic need to watch a Senators’ game and find an early bed.  What’s more, they seem ever more enthusiastic about the project, constantly planning improvements.

2.  Nilex makes an outstanding filter for syrup.  Martin brought this scrap of fabric from a bolt of the stuff his father used to concentrate plankton in sea water.  It’s a closely-woven nylon fabric which is then pressed between two hot rollers to provide a predictable size of mesh.  Used with a dinner-napkin pre-filter, it made my cheesecloth-filtered product look laughable by comparison.  Yesterday Martin checked out a competitor’s product at the Kingston Market.  The bottles he examined were quite cloudy. The vendor told Martin that they were having trouble getting the sugar sand out of their product with their pressure-filter system, and filtering the syrup is a big problem.  I wonder if they have heard of Nilex.

3.  Boiling sap over an open fire takes a lot of fuel.  I’ve progressed from raiding the woodpile to collecting fallen ironwoods and cutting them into three-foot lengths.  They provide a hot fire and reach well back into the arch.  If a log extends too far, though, say into the end of the stove pipe, a miserable evening of smoky fire will ensue. Clay makes quite a good emergency mortar to seal up gaping holes in the “firebox”, but it doesn’t make a lot of difference if the pipe is blocked.

4.  North winds are unpleasant for sap boiling.  I think I see why a sugar shack would be a good investment.  It’s no fun at all stoking a fire while the smoke blows  back at you.

5.  Some sap isn’t very sweet.  Martin was astounded when he bottled the second batch.  Boiled from a full drum of sap, he decanted six litres of fine, thick syrup.  The previous batch produced seven litres, but we had boiled about two and a half drums of sap to get it.  The early sap hadn’t tasted sweet at the tree, and I guess it wasn’t.

6.  A gas barbecue isn’t much good for boiling syrup.  I passed a leisurely afternoon trying to finish a small batch.  The heat is all wrong for the job and when I dumped in some milk to purify the syrup, it wasn’t boiling hard enough to congeal the milk properly and I ended up with a very tasty, watery product with a great deal of sediment in the bottom of the bottles.  It tasted exquisite on waffles, on the other hand.  I insist that thinner syrup tastes better and soaks into pancakes with less waste than the full-strength stuff.

7.  A 110,000 btu deep fryer does a great job finishing syrup.  Charlie quickly discovered that “the Binford Inferno” in fact has very precise controls.  With a sheet-metal wind screen, it has proven a fast and thrifty implement for the finishing of the syrup.

8.  A large maple syrup expresso latte is a great deal too much of everything.  With all of that tasting, tasting, tasting, my sweet tooth has gotten a real workout.  Waffles several times a day aren’t so bad, but I mustn’t try thinning over-strong coffee with maple syrup ever again.  It took several hours, two loads of ironwood cut and delivered, and two trailer-loads of planer shavings hauled away to burn off the sugar buzz.

9.  The Polaris Ranger has a way of making itself indispensable before anyone notices.  It carries the barrel to gather the sap.  It hauls the firewood.  It makes many trips back to the woodlot to check to see if the sap is running.  The headlights are doing far more work than they should.  Its relatively light weight and large tires float it over thawing turf into which a tractor would sink.  It wades through puddles very well.  It’s everywhere, and everyone needs it, most of the time.  We learned that it’s important to check if any hoses are attached before zooming off on the next errand.

10.  Syrup from the maples on Young’s Hill tastes wonderful.  Back when he was persuading me to take on the syrup project, Martin sent me a couple of research documents on the use of black walnut sap for syrup production in Kentucky.  In blind taste tests professionals unanimously rated regular table syrup superior to both the maple and walnut syrups produced by the crew.  Perhaps Kentucky syrup just doesn’t taste very good.  To illustrate my point I gave the boys a sample of some poor-quality maple syrup I found in my mother’s fridge. Their faces dropped. Then the grimmaces started. Descriptors such as “used motor oil” and “aftertaste of licorice” popped up.  Nobody took a second taste.  Not all syrup tastes good,  but the deep red ambrosia Charlie and Martin produce in a pan over an open fire in our yard is a delight to the senses.

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