Thursday, March 10, 2011

Maple syrup season 2011

A tap in a maple and a bucket of sap
I am more of a savory type of guy. Given the choice, I will always pick pizza, or a sandwich or even simple bread over a croissant or a pie. But there is one exception: maple syrup.

Maple syrup for me has always been a synonym of American breakfast. I remember watching all these movies or tv-series where everybody was eating pancakes and maple syrups, and thinking, wow, I would love some of that. Alas, since I moved to the States, I have been eating maple syrup far less than I would like to. And there isn't even a good reason for that. I guess I should make it up to myself.

I always assumed that Canada must be the largest producer of maple syrup (hey, they have an acer leaf on their flag, right? It must mean something...), but I didn't know that Quebec alone actually produced 75% of the world's supply. Vermont is the US State that seems to be more serious about its maple syrup traditions. 

Maple syrup was harvested by Native Americans well before the arrival of the first European colonists. According to the The Art of American Indian Cooking "almost all early accounts of explorers in the Eastern Woodlands mention maple syrup. In 1671 the Jesuit Nouvel referred to a 'liquor that runs from the trees toward the end of Winter, and which is known as maple-water'". According to this same book, although Native Americans did collect maple trees' sap, their utensils were too primitive to allow them to boil the tap into sugar. Hence, they separated the syrup from the water by letting the sap freeze overnight, and discarding the water that would freeze on top. Europeans caught up the sap tapping experience, and started exploiting it pretty early in their colonization process.

Maple syrup season begins when you have below freezing nights temperatures, and positive temperatures during the day. Of all maple producing locations, mostly located in North Eastern North America, this temperature combination happens first in Indiana, US, sometimes as early as the end of January, and then it moves up. By March, the season is well in gear pretty much in all maple syrup producing locations.

In order to make maple syrup, you must collect the sap of maple trees. There are different ways to do it, but the traditional one, the one that Native Americans were using before the arrival of European colonists, is as low tech as it is effective: you stick a tap an inch and a half (3cms) into the tree, and you place a bucket under that tap.

Once you have done that, the tree will do the rest, but only during the day, when the temperature is high enough to allow sap to circulate, and hence drop into the buckets. Every bucket collects approximately 40 liters of sap (shy of ten gallons) over a 15-20 days period (the whole maple syrup season only lasts 2 months).

Once you have that sap, which looks nothing like maple syrup (for it is as transparent as water), you need to boil it down, so that it gets thicker and turns into maple syrup. This process is often carried out in Sugar Houses or Sugar shacks. Sugar Houses have become a major tourist attractions, both in the US and mostly in Canada: tourists flock in to watch the maple syrup being made, but also to eat food cooked with the new maple syrup (and some of the recipes look VERY good).

Quebec's Sugar House (photo from the NYT)

Canada and the US being these two very far away countries, speaking entirely different languages, with different traditions and a different history of colonization, it seems only natural that they have different grading standards for their maple syrup. And some US States (notably Vermont and New Hampshire) have their own grading system that differ slightly from the US national system. 

The grading is based on the color and density of the syrup. In the US, you have grade A and grade B. Grade A comes in three subgrades, light amber, medium amber and dark amber. The earlier the sap is collected, the lighter the amber will be. Grade B is darker than Grade A dark amber, and denser, and comes from sap collected later in the season. Canadian maple syrup is graded #1 or #2. #1 can be extra light, light or medium. #2 can be amber and Ontario amber. 
From left to right: Vermont fancy, Grade A medium amber, Grade A dark amber, Grade B
(Photo from here)

I personally like the darker grades better, because they are richer and denser (at least in my experience: I don't know if the density and the darker color always go hand in hand). And I intend to cook more with maple syrup. But one thing is for sure: next weekend it will be pancake and maple syrup. Or maybe I could go wild, and try this recipe from butter lover, heart killer Paula Deen: baked French Toast casserole with maple syrup. I know, not exactly the lightest dish, but hey?!, you only live once...

8 comments: said...

Love maple syrup .. sweet or savory! It's definitely worth the investment in the high-grade stuff. Southern chicken and waffles (slathered in maple syrup of course) is one of my all-time favorite dishes, and just last week I made Maple Ice Cream with Wet Walnuts (walnuts toasted and coated in maple syrup). So so so good! thanks for sharing the history with us.

Tuscan foodie in America said...

Hi there - I had southern chicken and waffle with maple syrup for the first time last year...when I saw it on the menu I thought it was a mistake...but it was good!

mudz said...

great article, I loke maple syrup

Tuscan foodie in America said...

Thank you Mudz!

Ruccina said...

A visit to a "cabane à sucre" once a year is a must! Canadian (Quebécois) Maple Syrup is second to none... but then again, I will be the first to admit my biased point of view.

Tuscan foodie in America said...

I would love to visit one sooner or later...

Massimo Sgrelli said...

Great post! Maple syrup and pancakes is what we usually cook for the whole family every Sunday morning for breakfast. We live in Italy but we love great breakfast food to celebrate being all together in the weekend. Unfortunately in Italy there's no chance to get the same gorgeous meal in a restaurant. Why?
Do you think there could be a business for that?
Am I the only one with this passion?

Tuscan foodie in America said...

Hi Massimo, welcome and thank you for your comment. I always wondered the same thing: why isn't anyone taking matters into his own hands and start heavily promoting this stuff in Italy?


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