Friday, March 21, 2014

Sap season

I have a minor leaning toward learning to live off the grid. I love the Foxfire series of books and the idea of DIY projects like creating a pergola out of repurposed rebar. However, I am not that interested in actually doing the projects--work, friends, books, and other fun gets in the way. Plus, being raised by handy people in farm country teaches you early just how much work is involved in pioneer activities. Thank God for the Rototiller and running water. I may not get any projects done, but my back is still in good shape.
Last of the 2013 vintage. Note I failed to filter it.
But I do like complex cooking/food projects. A couple of years ago I noticed the local natural parks and historic sites were all offering demonstrations on how maple syrup is made. Which got me thinking about the maples around me. Were they sugar maples? Could I get something out of them?

I had always heard/assumed that you could only do sugaring if you had a lot of trees and a sugar shack and boiler, etc. That is, it was a job for professionals. But when a friend showed up for brunch one day with a jar of homemade syrup from her old farmer neighbor, I got interested. A little poking around county extension web sites and I found it was a pretty simple process. The hard part of the information gathering was trying to find instructions for the really small-time hobbyist.

The upshot is that this is the 4th year we've tapped my parents' trees. We don't get a lot of syrup, but it's fun to do and makes me feel like I am getting something for nothing. Plus, we can taste the changes in the syrup as the season goes on, not to mention how it varies from other local producers.

We tapped a little late this year. I don't know what kind of harvest to expect given the unusually harsh winter. But it's nice to go out and check on the trees, see how the sap is running, and listen to the birds chatter at you.

And this is perhaps the ultimate in cook's treats--drinking off a cup of the fresh sap. It's a serious spring tonic when slugged from the collecting jug while surrounded by snow on a sunny day in late February. Crystal clear like spring water, you can taste the light sweetness of sap--but it doesn't just taste like sugared water. There are very slight notes of fruit, flowers, and minerals. I have to stop myself from just drinking it all. Much like when you go berry picking, you have to stop eating the berries already and put some in the bucket.

Most of the homegrown syrup is destined for pancakes, but I like to make buckwheat crepes with sautéed apples at least once--the delicacy of home syrup can really shine through.

Morning Food by Margaret S. Fox and John Bear of Mendocino's Café Beaujolais (Ten Speed Press, 1990) has a recipe that I've been tempted to try for hot cereal cooked in sap. I'm sure it's good, but I don't love hot cereal enough to use the sap on it. Morning Food is a great book that I often flip through on Saturdays for some breakfast inspiration. Café Beaujolais seems like an ideal mix of California's natural foods and indulgent eating. There are Morning Glory Muffins and Waffles with Smoked Turkey Sauce and Birchard Soaked Oats. I always imagine a sun-soaked room with lots of wood and the smell of coffee when I read this book.

I also have The Sugar Bush Connection by Beatrice Ross Buszeck (Nimbus Publishing, 1982), a charming hand lettered book of maple sugar/syrup recipes that I picked up on a glorious lobster- and lupine-filled trip to Prince Edward Island, Canada. This is a book for people overwhelmed with syrup. Many recipes would simply cost too much for most people to make, but I love the ingenuity of these cold-country cooks determined to use up something so hard-won. Her recipe for Spring Tonic sounds like it will cure anything that ails you: 

Spring Tonic
¼ c. maple syrup
¼ c. lime juice
1 c. light rum
1 c. ginger ale

Combine and stir well. Pour over crushed ice. Serving size is not indicated, but I am assuming 1-4 depending on you guests' tolerances for grog.

And in late breaking news. I spotted this at my local health food store (go Arbor Farms!): commercial Maple Tree Water. I don't know whether to be appalled or impressed with their entrepreneurial energy. But this is America, and if you can dream it you can sell it.

It's called sap, people


  1. I have some of your syrup, frozen blueberries that we picked last August...When are you going to start growing wheat? Seriously.

  2. Never. Remember I read the Little House books as a child. If I plant wheat, a flock of crows will come and destroy it.