The long, cold, snowy slog before spring’s first fiddlehead is especially painful for those of us who live to eat—the Northeast locavore out of Hubbard squash can start to feel like old Mother Hubbard. But this brutally barren stretch is peak harvest time for a magical ingredient in your otherwise-bare cupboard—and, no, I’m not talking about more potatoes and apples.
In these dark days of winter—before buds appear on Central Park cherry trees, before the first little tulip points break the now-dingy snowline—something edible, something delicious, is literally on tap. Because when nights are cold but the lengthening sunlight pushes the midday mercury into the upper 40s, maple sap starts its annual run. Granted, nobody I know is tapping trees or pounding spiles— the technical name for those metal or plastic spouts—into their brownstone backyard sugar maple, waiting for the plinkity plinkity plink of sap dripping into their tin pail come February or March, when day temperatures creep above freezing and the trees send stored sugar up their trunks and into their branches’ soonto- swell buds. And I have no friends—not any in Manhattan, anyhow—who proudly point out their secret sugar bush (meaning a stand of sap-producing sugar maples) stocked with four-tappers (the big trees that can support four spiles) up in some hidden nook of Fort Tryon—if such a thing were legal. I don’t know of a city soul sweating over their stove, slowly boiling down that barely flavored, nearly clear sap into thick amber goodness.
We could, if we really wanted to. But lucky for locavores, people like Andy and Tony Van Glad—the two brothers who have run the Wood Homestead Maple Syrup company up in Stamford, New York, for decades—do it for us. Today most maple syrupers sell wholesale or by mail order, but the Van Glads and a precious few others bring the sweet stuff to the city’s Greenmarkets and we thank them from the bottom of our pancakes.
Native Americans harvested the winter sap of the sugar maple for centuries, cooking it into a sweet tar, and they taught European settlers how to find the maples with the sweetest sap and cut them open with an axe. (Those were usually sugar maples, or Acer saccharum, and black maples, or Acer nigrum, both of which have leaves in the shape of the one on the Canadian flag.) Some came to call maple sugar “free man’s sugar” and ultimately that’s why it lost the market: It couldn’t compete with the price of slave-produced cane sugar from the West Indies. Today’s maple lingo, even when referring to syrup, testifies to the industry’s early emphasis on powder: a stand of maples is sugar bush, a maple producer is a sugarmaker, the sap-boiling building is a sugar house and the whole process is sugaring.
Sugaring uses photosynthesis to human advantage. In summer, the maple tree stores sugar in its roots as starch, which, come late winter, it converts back to sugar and runs up the tree to bring nutrition to the soon-to-swell buds. When sap starts flowing, the sugarmaker must be ready. Sap waits for no one!
Preparations in New York State begin at the first of the year—or, as Tony Van Glad says, as soon as hangovers fade—but the power tapper, similar to a cordless drill, doesn’t make its holes until just before the sap is expected to run, lest they grow closed too early. Although some sugarmakers still hang buckets from tin or iron spiles, most sap is collected via plastic tubing and runs from the trees downhill to a collection vat. For full-timers like the Van Glads—who tap about 10,000 wild trees, which are scattered in around a dozen stands dotting two Catskills counties—there’s a whole supply of sugaring gear. The brothers still collect a little sap the way it’s been done for decades—and if you look around upstate between January and April, you’ll probably spot a few tree-slung pails. (“I’m old-school,” Andy once told me as he was collecting buckets by hand in front of a local doctor’s office, emptying the day’s sap into a tank in the bed of his truck.) But for the big stands of mountainside trees, sugarmakers let gravity do much of the work: miles of crisscrossing plastic tubing run from tree to tree, sending the sap downslope into mammoth stainless steel vats.
The number of taps varies with tree size, but typically sugarmakers harvest about 8 percent of a tree’s sap. Although taking sap harms the tree no more than giving blood harms a person, sap’s function is not fully understood and sugarmakers need happy, healthy sugar bush, good for tapping from age 40 to 200, so they are careful not to overtap.
Sugarmarkers gather each stand’s sap a few times a week and truck it to the sugarhouse where it’s boiled down, a whopping 40 gallons to make a single gallon of syrup, or as much as 80 gallons of sap per gallon of syrup by the end of the season when the sugar content is lower. When sap flows hard, sugarmakers work right through the night.
You can boil sap down in any open vessel over a fire—settlers probably used cast-iron kettles over great roaring fires out in the woods—but since the 1930s sugarmakers have been boiling down sap in evaporators: giant shallow metal pans perched atop a raging hot fire, long fueled by wood, and, now, more often by gas. The Van Glads’ sugarhouse is a wonderfully ramshackle barnlike outbuilding which sends caramel-scented puffs of sweet smoke up over the snowy hills. Boiling time depends on the sap’s sugar-to-water ratio; the more water, the longer it takes. In the evaporator, water literally sizzles off from the sap, much the way white sugar crystals fizzle and steam angrily when you caramelize them on the stovetop.
And when that liquid finally becomes syrup—at 7 degrees above the boiling point of water—you can open a spout off the evaporator and pour off the scorching hot reward.
The syrup is then graded by shade, with darker color indicating stronger flavor. At the start of the season, the sap looks, feels and tastes like water, with just a hint of sweetness, and the syrup it makes (Grade A, also called Vermont Fancy) is lightest in color and flavor. Sap collected later in the season, when the tree’s buds swell and leaves form, produces darker syrup (Grade B) with more intense molasses-y flavor. Like the cook who bakes with light olive oil but uses stronger-flavored extra-virgin in vinaigrette, maple aficionados eat light syrup on pancakes and stronger, darker, more robust Grade B in pecan pie. Traditionally the lighter grades were prized because maple sugar isn’t usually made from dark syrup, but today many prefer the stronger maple flavor.
Each year my pancakes (and my biscuits and my slow-roasted squash and my glazed carrots and my baked beans and ham) look forward to the day when the new vintage of sweet A arrives, followed by plenty of intensely flavored B.
Yes, asparagus and ramps might be two months away, but it still seems like a pretty sweet time of the year to me.
Photo credit: June Russell and Michael Harlan Turkell