This has been the interminable winter here in the Great Lakes. As of a snowfall yesterday, we are only three inches away from tying the all-time snowiest winter for Detroit since 1880-81.
We’ve had a few days of forty degrees and two that were just above fifty, but mostly it’s been cold and snowy. We’re getting sunnier days now and quite often it feels like we’re on that hinge point between winter and spring, which is only just over a week away.
This time of year though is special. As the days warm, yet the nights stay cold, the sap begins to flow in trees. That means the first farm crop that can be harvested in Michigan is almost ready.
What am I talking about? Arugula? No, that would have been planted in late summer or early fall and probably the season was over in January (if you had them covered. Asparagus? Nope, too early. So what then?
I could only be talking about maple syrup. That sweet, gooey goodness that comes from a tree.
My experience with maple syrup didn’t start until much later in life (my twenties, if I recall correctly). I was a devotee of Mrs. Butterworth’s and no tree sap was going to change my mind.
I don’t know when I made the switch exactly, but I don’t want to go back to that old corn lady. Sure, maple syrup costs more, but hey, it’s almost guaranteed to be organic and sustainable and supports local economies.
In fact, per tablespoon of maple syrup you’ll ingest 20 mg calcium, 2 mg phosphorous, 2 mg iron, 2 mg sodium (yes, they even put salt on trees!) and 35 mg of potassium. What’s your corny syrup have?
Maple syrup is only produced in the northeastern US and eastern Canada. How far west the range extends, I’m not sure, but probably not west of Minnesota, if that.
The Michigan Maple Syrup Association claims it is the oldest agricultural enterprise in the US, but I’m not clear on what that means? Older than corn and squash? The oldest enterprise that involved the exchange of money? The website doesn’t clarify that. Obviously, though, the Indians were the first to discover the sweetness hidden beneath the bark.
Speaking of Michigan, according to 2004 figures, Michigan is 5th in the nation for syrup production with 90,000 gallons harvested per year. It appears to be one of those rare products where demand exceeds supply, possibly explaining the relatively high cost–and perhaps because the US Farm Bill does not include subsidies for maple trees.
The sap is collected from the xylem in sugar, red, and black maple trees, although other species of maple can be tapped, but the sugar content is lower resulting in less sweetness, less syrup, or more boiling time. In Korea, people drink the sap from Acer mono, another maple species, but don’t produce syrup. And in Alaska and Siberia, birch trees are tapped, but again sugar content is much lower.
The flavor is affected by soil type, tree genetics, and the weather during the tapping season. Pressure develops in the tree when the temps are above freezing and this pushes the sap out of a wound or a tap.
Maples are tapped once they reach about 10 inches in diameter with one tap. The largest trees have a maximum of three taps. On average, given the tree, weather, length of sap season, and method, one can harvest about 10-20 gallons per tap.
Once it’s bottled, maple syrup is good for over a year.
In the Little House on the Prairie series, Laura Ingalls Wilder tells of a winter treat where hot maple syrup is poured over snow to create a proto-snow cone. My father-in-law can attest to this.
If you’re at all interested in making your own maple syrup, you don’t have to own 40 acres of sugar bush, you could, with your neighbors’ consent, tap the trees right around you.
The challenge this month isn’t to tap a maple tree, but it is two-fold: see if you can identify some of the still naked maples in your neighborhood (sugar maples have “peanut-butter valleys” between ridges of bark) and buy some locally/regionally produced maple syrup.
Information was gleaned from the Michigan Maple Syrup Association and Cornell.edu.