3 Herb Mamas

MAKING MAPLE SYRUP…AND MUSING

on March 3, 2014

Back before Thanksgiving 2013 a chance meeting of a couple we have since become friends with led to an impromptu and animated discussion about maple sugaring. That is, gathering the sap from maple trees and cooking it down into syrup. It turned out that Larry and Christa have experience tapping maple trees and sugaring and they offered to return with the late winter sugar snows and show us how. True to their word, they came on a clear, relatively warm day in February and helped us get started. We didn’t want to invest in a lot in equipment until we found out if it was something that we would want to do again and again in the future. As you can see, our taps are hardly high-tech.

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My husband cut lengths of copper tubing (about 4 inches long) to use as spiles. Then he used a drill bit slightly smaller than the diameter of the tubing to drill a couple of inches into the tree. These are not deeply drilled, no more than 2 inches at a slightly upward angle 2-4 feet from the ground on the south facing side of the tree. As long as all the spiles are removed at the end of the season the tree will heal itself and form a little scar at the site of the tap. This spot or another above it should not be used again in subsequent years. We tapped two trees that were more than 12 inches in diameter. One was a soft maple and the other a hard, Sugar Maple. The Sugar Maple was much older and bigger and we were able to place three taps on this tree while placing only one on the soft maple.

Ideally, you want cold nights with freezing followed by relatively warm (above freezing but not much above 40 degrees), sunny days to promote the flow of sap. The amount of sap gathered daily varied widely ranging from half a gallon on the slowest, coldest day to 4 gallons on our best day so far. This is what we collected on that day:

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Once we had a total of 10 gallons of sap we decided to begin boiling it down to make syrup. We did end up drinking some sap along the way (YUMM!), brewing some dark, French roast coffee with sap (DOUBLE YUMM!), and, as you will see, I used some to make an herbal mineral preparation. So we actually only started out with 9 gallons of sap for cooking down. We built up the fires in our two wood stoves in our home. We were told that sugaring is a steamy affair, which is why it is most often not done inside the home. (I just re-read that sentence and it does sound a bit sordid, doesn’t it?) But since we were starting with a relatively small amount of sap and there was a deep freeze and winter storm predicted for that evening we thought it would be a good day to get the house really warm while cooking down our sap. Since the sap was icy cold, some even frozen, I opted to bring it to a boil on our electric stove in a soup pot 2 gallons at a time and then pour it all into two large roasting pans set on the wood stove on the main floor. We ended up not needing to use the second wood stove in the basement and I was thankful because I had not been looking forward to schlepping hot sap and syrup up and down the stairs.

Boiling sap foams a little. This was skimmed off and discarded.

The goal in cooking down your sap is to keep it boiling and create as much surface area as possible to aid evaporation. Commercial operations often have pans that are 4 feet wide and 6 feet long or larger, although they may only be about 4 inches deep. These large roasting pans were all I had on hand so we made do. I will be scouring flea markets and second hand shops for suitable receptacles for future sugaring. We ended up evaporating more than 8.5 gallons of water into the air during the 10 hours of cooking down. Yes, our home was moist and warm but that felt pretty nice on a cold, winter day and a refreshing change from the dry air we’ve become accustomed to.

While the sap was boiling down I did a little experimenting with some of it. First, I brewed a small French press pot using freshly ground French roast coffee and hot maple sap. It made, hands-down, the best cup of coffee I have ever had. Just a splash of real cream and it was unbeatable by even the finest coffee bar. I did a little research on the nutritional value and benefits of maple syrup and decided it was a shoe-in for my Herban Iron & Mineral Syrup. Maple syrup is high in iron, calcium, zinc, manganese, and potassium. I thought this would perfectly complement the mineral rich herbs like Yellowdock, Dandelion, Red Clover, Nettles, Red Raspberry leaf, Alfalfa, Hawthorn berries, and Eleuthero root that I use for my daily mineral supplement.

     

In a medium sized, deep sauce pan I placed 4 oz. of my Herban Iron Syrup dry herb blend along with half a gallon of Maple sap. I brought this to a boil, covered, and then set the lid askew and simmered until it was reduced to about 1 quart. In case you are wondering just how amazing our house was smelling at this point, I can sum it up in one word: SWEET! All the sap was bubbling along so I turned my attention to finishing the syrup. I strained the cooked down decoction of Herban Iron herbs through a cloth lined sieve into a glass measuring cup and indeed discovered I had just over a quart of strong tea. To this I added 2 cups of raw, local honey and stirred to dissolve thoroughly. I allowed it to cool a little more before pouring it into labeled glass bottles, which I store in the refrigerator. These will keep for several months but we generally use them up long before any possible expiration. My teen-aged daughter and I use these as a daily mineral supplement, taking from 2-6 oz. throughout the day as needed. This keeps our iron and calcium levels high and helps regulate healthy menstrual cycles and keep us on an even keel emotionally.

Back to our maple sap, which had been boiling down for 9 hours, it was time to pay a little more attention. We were down  to about a gallon so my husband poured it all back into the soup pot to monitor more closely on the top of the kitchen stove. I stayed close by and kept it at a rolling boil. A drop of pure cream on the surface ensured that it would not boil over and when the pot was reduced by half I began monitoring the temperature. At this stage we were not so exact. I kept finding conflicting guidelines for the correct temperature at which the syrup should be when it is ready. We tested the temperature at which water boiled on this low barometric pressure day (207 degrees F) and added 7 degrees to that. It took another hour but it finally hit 214 degrees F briefly and we removed it from the heat, strained it, and poured it into hot, sterilized jars almost to the rims, capped with hot, sterilized lids and  turned them upside down to seal. We had a little extra that we poured into a bottle and reserved for our next pancake breakfast.

FUN MAPLE SYRUP FACTS:

Maple syrup in rich in iron, calcium, zinc, manganese and potassium.

Maple syrup, like honey, has natural anti-oxidants, which fight cancer-causing free radicals and slow aging. 

Maple syrup is a healthier sugar because it is complex and has less fructose than honey. (A diet high in fructose is detrimental to heart and liver health.)

MAPLE MUSINGS

There is plenty of time for pondering while making maple syrup…hours and hours of it. We took our time each day as we went out to check the tapped trees, noticing little details like the hawk we saw each time and named Herc Hawkins, or the owl pellets, or the fat groundhog scurrying around. After a week of tromping back and forth from our trees to the house to collect sap, we finally had enough to make a little syrup. Then it was a full day of tending fires, watching boiling sap so it didn’t boil over, the final temperature taking and syrup testing, and the nerve-wracking (for newbies like us) decision making about whether or not it was ready, the straining, and the final canning. I was awed by the way I had always considered real maple syrup to be crazy expensive. After one week of sugaring I am awed by how cheaply it is sold.

I love making real things with my own hands. It doesn’t have to be something we will always do. Nor does it have to be the only way we procure the things we have in our lives. But it is enlightening to participate in the process and come to a fuller understanding of what is involved. Making an article of clothing from gathering fiber to weaving cloth to finished garment or a piece of furniture from a harvested tree all the way to completed table or chair… anything, really…is a humbling process. I will never forget the first quilt I ever completed on my own. It was a scrap quilt called Flying Geese and it was fashioned from scraps and bits of fabric and old clothing. The batting was a well worn wool blanket. It took over 300 hours to complete over the first year of our first-born’s life. I remember placing him for naps on blankets under the quilt frame and I would stitch until he woke up. I have sweet memories of him playing under my quilt frame, which he called his “apart-a-ment”, over the years. One day shortly after I had finished this quilt I walked into a big box store in a neighboring city and saw “handmade quilts” on sale for $35. I looked closely and they were indeed hand-stitched, even if poorly, and the fabric was of a poor quality as well that would probably not stand up to many washings. I stood for awhile pondering the conditions under which someone would hand sew large blankets for even a fraction of the number of hours that I had spent on my first quilt and then have it shipped to our country and sold for this pittance. I felt like I was peeking into a slave hut and glimpsing misery at its worst. Tears began to stream down my face and, of course, I had to leave. That day was an important turning point for me as a young mother and homemaker. I realized it was essential to me to understand the real cost and value of the things in my life, to participate enough in their making to never miss the deep appreciation that transcends themes and color schemes and fashions that come and go.

All these thoughts came to me over the course of that week of sugaring. As I visited these trees and thought about all the hidden work they do during a season that we often consider “dead” and “lifeless”, I began to notice variations in bark and the swaying of the branches in the wind. I loved their sounds and scents. I thought about the needs of the tree and was careful not to take too much sap. I thought about the Little House in the Big Woods stories of their sugar snows and sugar camps and how this and a little sorghum they grew were their only sources for sweetening. The average person today consumes 150 pounds of sugar per year compared to just 7-1/2 pounds in 1700.  Why is sugar so easy and cheap? How would my life be different if I consumed only the sugar or sweetener that I could produce?

We took 9 gallons of sap gathered over the course of a week and cooked it down for 10 hours to make 5.5 cups of maple syrup. I would estimate that we spent a total of close to 20 hours on all aspects of making this maple syrup. How much would you expect to earn for 20 hours of work? Even at a minimum wage rate of $7.25 that would be $145 and make my syrup cost over $26 per cup. We had almost no up-front investment in equipment, and although we did use our electric stove for parts of the process, we could have done it all on an outdoor wood fire. Still, wood must be either cut, split, and stacked or purchased so it is an expense in one way or another that would need to be factored in. I have no intention of selling maple syrup the same as I would not hand make quilts for sale. I understand too much about the process now. Instead I will practice daily gratitude for all the blessings we enjoy and try harder not to waste.

Sugar Maple Glory


2 responses to “MAKING MAPLE SYRUP…AND MUSING

  1. Marcia Laska says:

    Thank you for sharing your journey in “sugaring”. What a touching story– your realizing the values to be found in your living. That it is a celebration of work, nature and family. Your memories of life on the farm are of value beyond currency and are joyous. After spending 2 afternoons this week making large batches of spring tonic and fire cider to share at a class in April; I am so thankful to have the opportunity and time to enjoy the process. Namaste

    • 3 Herb Mamas says:

      Thank you, Marcia. Obviously, I am still learning the ins and outs of blogging because I somehow missed your comment. Sorry about the delay in acknowledging. Hopefully, by now, the green life is returning where you are and your spring tonic and fire cider classes have been or will be wonderful. Blessings! ~Leenie

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