Thursday, February 28, 2013
Maple sugaring (II)
Last week I wrote about my family's maple sugaring tradition. Today I'll add an amendment: while we love most of the maple sugaring process (tapping trees, collecting sap, boiling it down in the evaporator), we have a hard time with one part: finishing the syrup.
This is the part where the syrup has been boiled to the right consistency, but you have to filter out the minerals and sediment in order to package it. First you heat up the syrup to the boiling point, and then you run it through a wool filter. It's a long and slow process, mostly because the syrup gets all gummed up in the wool filter (what with residue and all that). Once you finally have enough syrup, you have to heat it up again in order to hot-pack it. Still, this is nothing more than filling fresh pint or quart bottles and sealing with a special cap. It's much less involved than canning.
So yes, my family loves one long and slow process (boiling), but somehow we can't make ourselves love another long and slow process (filtering). I know, I know. The idiosyncrasies of the human mind!
As a result, we've made syrup for years without going through that final step. Since the syrup's never been hot-packed, we have to keep it in the freezer. So we have a freezer full of maple syrup.
Just before I flew back to Rhode Island, my dad and I spent an afternoon and evening filtering and packaging a few quarts of syrup. We discovered it's best to do this when you can walk away for a while; that way, the intensely slow drip of the filter won't drive you completely insane. In fact, it was actually kind of fun.
But while this process may seem extremely old-fashioned and back-to-the-land, it's actually a "modernized" version of the earliest maple sugaring. The Chippewa and other Northeastern Native American tribes were the first to harvest maple syrup, long before the Europeans set foot in North America. The Chippewa collected sap in much the same way as we do--a makeshift spile let sap drip into a bucket, and it was boiled until syrupy--but they created a different end product. Instead, they turned most of the syrup into granulated maple sugar, which was more easily stored throughout the year. By working the syrup in a special trough, they could turn it into fine granules that were then stored in birch bark containers. The Chippewa drew on this store throughout the year for ceremonies and special meals.
No matter which way you finish, maple sugaring is a labor-intensive process that shows you where your food comes from, beginning to end. And that's something to savor.