Who knew making maple butter was so much work! I really wanted to make maple butter yet I don’t own a maple butter machine, so I made up my mind I’d do it by hand. Of course by ‘I’, I mean ‘we’ and AJ was recruited to help me. The recipe instructed, “churn maple syrup for 12-15 minutes with a maple butter machine. Lacking a maple butter machine, we used a wooden spoon instead, plopped down on the floor in front of the TV and took turns stirring. We’re not nearly as efficient churners as a maple butter machine; 45 minutes later we had maple butter. Our arms were defeated, yet I was invigorated. I can’t say the same for AJ!
Fall is in the air. The cold descends at night, coating outside in a crisp, white veil of frost. A deceptive way of introducing colder temperatures and preparing us for winter. Still, fall invigorates me; I convert garden produce into a variety of edibles and delights. Tomatoes into salsa, cucmbers into pickles, horseradish roots into, well horseradish. And the list goes on. Tomatoes I find very versatile. From salsa and chutney to tomato sauce, tomatoes are the base for such a diversity of foods. Last year, with the garden abounding in tomatoes, I tried my hand at making sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil. While I only got one 500 mL jar from about 5 lbs of tomatoes, each morsel exploded with flavor and tasted out of this world. This year the tomato plants didn’t fare as well and I didn’t have enough to make everything I wanted to. And this year someone in the family planted potatoes. (Personally, I didn’t really want to do potatoes because I didn’t want to be the one digging them up but I digress…kind of). Now the planter is 8 months pregnant and has been ordered on bed rest so it looks like I’ll be the one digging them up after all. She planted them along a fence. In a field. I know where the field is, and I know where the fence is, but that is the extent of it. I’m begrudgingly going to dig up the ones I can find today before the frost turns them all into mush. If it hasn’t already. For many people around these parts Fall means time for the Carp Fair, a local tradition. The Carp Fair is both gardeners’ and farmers’ chance to display their pride and joy – their livestock, their produce, and their preserving abilities. This year I’m entering hot salsa, my maple syrup, maple butter, and a stuffed baby toy (knitted stuffed caterpillar) I made for my brother’s soon-to-be-newborn. (I have a sinking suspicion that if I were to sneak up on Mike and his baby spending quality nap time together, I’d find Mike snuggling with the caterpillar instead of the baby 🙂 ). I had my tags printed off earlier in the week and I’m submitting my entries tonight. They will be judged tomorrow. I don’t mean to boast or anything but my maple syrup is pretty fantastic – it’s got good clarity, color, outstanding flavor. The only thing I’m unsure about is the density. Thick maple syrup is what I grew up on, what I consider to be the standard. But I’ve heard others say that runnier maple syrup with a more delicate flavor is considered to be better. And I think I’m going to have some pretty stiff competition. There are a number of well-seasoned maple sugarers around these parts who know a lot more about making maple syrup than me. I guess I’ll have to wait and see. If it turns out runnier is what they want all the better; next year I’ll draw the syrup off earlier and run less risk of my pans foaming over 😛
Usually by this time of year the sun is blazing in all it’s glory. The garden abounding with beans, tomatoes, zucchini and the like, the lawn turning an attractive mustard, burnt color, Ahhh the heat. That is certainly not the case this year. Due to the late spring this season’s harvest seems delayed – by a lot. Both the tomato plants I started from seed in January, as well as the tomato plants that I bought in May have only yielded a handful of produce this year, whereas in other years there have been grocery bags full of ruby red tomatoes of all sizes by this time. After hearing newscasters this winter and spring go on and on about a ‘polar vortex’ that was taking place, and predicting milder temperatures in the coming months I was skeptical. It sounded a bit made up to me, I may have even scoffed a little. Well, it’s time for me to eat my words of disbelief, they may be the only things to ripen this year.
I planted vegetable seeds at the beginning of February. I live in Kanata, Ontario, Canada, hardiness zone 4b. According to Environment Canada, our frost dates are May 12 and October 15. This year has seen a harsh winter and had me pining for warmer weather. Mental images of lush spinach, plump tomatoes and green beans, have influenced me to attempt starting some plants from seed this year instead of buying established seedlings from the store (as well as the desire to save a bit of coin). After 2 weeks of watching dirt being dirt I spotted a few tiny sprouts of spinach vying to make their way into the world. By the end of the next week most of squares in my starter trays bore little sprouts from spinach, cherry tomato, big tomato and cabbage seeds. The fact that all of the sprouts looked remarkably similar, identical in fact had me a little concerned that somehow I’d managed to mislabel the trays, until I read that these first two leaves of a sprout are not in fact “true leaves” but rather “cotyledons”. Whereas cotyledons all look the same, it is the next two leaves that sprout, the “true leaves” that bear a plant’s unique form. I hoarded my little seedlings in front of the sliding doors at the back of the house where they can photosynthesize as much sun as possible. I am eager for them to grow, flourish and nourish my cravings for fresh produce.
Our maple syrup season has come to a close. What a rush this season has been though! From start to finish this season has kept me busy fulfilling some responsibility or another. We had a busy Saturday April 12 boiling the last draw, then I made the decision Sunday April 13 to pull the taps. When we got out to the bush my decision was confirmed by what I viewed in the first couple of buckets; just enough sap to cover the bottom of the bucket, not enough to justify another boil though. Moreover, my decision to pull the taps Sunday instead of Monday was further validated by the steady downpour of rain Monday brought. So I finished my final batch Monday, then tallied up our syrup production for this year. Our total yield for 2014 is a whopping 70 Litres of syrup!
Now I have 150 each of buckets, spiles and lids to wash; the evaporator to scrub out; the finishing unit to scrub out; bottling equipment to clean; the collecting tank, the boiling instruments, the filters, the holding tank; all of this equipment needs to be cleaned before storing them for next year.
This year was a whirl-wind adventure and, while the learning curve was steep I’ve gleaned several important points for next season, including that if I try and drive across the field when it’s muddy after the thaw I will get stuck and need my neighbor to help push me out. I’m excited for next year. I have my eye set on a workshop or two in the coming months, that teach about maple syrup production to hobbyists, and forest management. For now though, I’m content with finishing cleaning up and catching up on some well-needed rest.
It has been a unique season, I’ll say that much. An uncharacteristically cold March, followed by what seemed to me to be a rapid spike in temperatures has not boded well for the maple syrup season here in Eastern Ontario. With the temperature warming up so quickly, the significant snowfall we have experienced this year is now melting, quickly! Left in the snow’s wake is mud. Tons of mud! Enough mud to make sap collection with a motorized vehicle not possible without getting stuck in the mud. Back to basics for us! Armed with an 8-gallon milk jug, two collecting pails, a sled to transport everything and the will-power of true Canadians we set out to collect as much sap as our milk jug would let us. We headed for the furthest trees first and worked our way forward from there. Hauling everything there was more than half the battle – we dealt with steep inclines, a tippy sled and lots of sticky mud! We filled our jug from 30 buckets… only 110 buckets to go! Time to trek back to the house.
At the risk of losing our sap, we opted to travel a different route back, a route with less tipping hazards. We pulled the sled across the pasture instead of in front of the treeline. At the ridge we carefully guided the jug of sap down the path to the front field, checking the ridge-buckets along way. They were over half full and needed emptying too. We had to go back to the house to get the 50 gallon holding tank and UTV, not merely an 8-gallon milk jug to collect all this sap. Off we went, across the snowy field, taking turns pulling the sled or holding the jug upright while pushing the sled. Whose crazy ‘let’s make maple syrup’ idea was this anyways? I sheepishly grin and avert my gaze.
Sunny days of gathering, with crisp weather hovering at about the 3 degree Celcius point are wonderful days to be out in the woods. Such days engage my senses. I get to view nature in its purest, capture snapshots of tranquillity as I set out to gather this day’s harvest. Sun glistens off of the snow, light sparkles through icicles. Sap tastes like sweet snowflakes. As I progress, a calming steady rhythm begins -droplets of sap hitting the bottom of buckets. The beat picks up the more buckets I empty – plunk plunk plunk, plunk plunk. It turns into an orchestra of plunks with me as maestro.
Big days in maple syrup production are the boiling days. I should preface that statement, noting that ALL days in maple syrup production are big days from the many labor-intensive duties the process requires (fuel needs to be collected, the trees need to be tapped, the sap needs to be continually collected, the equipment needs to be sterilized), but I deter. The BIGGER days in maple syrup production are boiling days. As can be deduced from what is described below, it takes a lot of preparation!
Boiling days typically last from 8am to 3pm or later. On boiling days, one needs enough firewood to feed the fire in the evaporator approximately once every two minutes. For a full day of boiling that requires a lot of wood. To know roughly how much wood we will require let’s do bit of calculation: now, a cord of wood is defined as 12 inch pieces of wood piled 4 feet deep, by 4 feet high, by 8 feet long. Maple syrupers say that when using dry, split hardwood, evaporator efficiency is about 25 gallons of syrup per cord; 15 gallons of syrup per cord with dry, split softwood. We’re using some soft and some hardwood so I’ll average it out and say 20 gallons/cord. We have bout 125 taps up that will each produce on average 20 gallons of sap over the season. This will yield a grand total of 1875 gallons of sap (20 gal. x 125 trees = 2500 gal.). Divide that yield by 40 (40:1 sap:syrup ratio) and you get 62.5 gallons of syrup. Finally, divide 62.5 gallons by ~20 gallons per cord and you get 3.12 cords. All that is to say we will need a little more than 3 cords of wood this year. Now, all of these calculations are based on dry wood. This means before the boiling even takes place enough damaged trees need to be cut down and cut into logs which are then split, stacked, and dried. Drying wood takes more than a weekend, or even a month. Drying takes about a year of sun shining down on the wood, slowly evaporating moisture from the densely packed wood fibres.
This year is going to be a bit unconventional for our maple syrup production. Since we just bought our evaporator this year, we don’t have that much stacked and dried fuel set aside specifically for burning in the evaporator. Luckily, we have some extra that hasn’t been used to heat the house this year that we can use for evaporator fuel. To be better prepared for next year my Dad and I have been in the bush a number of times lately, felling dead trees for fuel, cutting the wood into logs and splitting and stacking the wood to dry.
On boiling day, dry fuel wood burns furiously. The chimney attached to the rear of the evaporator in the sugar shack rises high above the roof-line to catch the airflow of the wind. This airflow draws the flames from the firebox of the evaporator, stretching the flames from the ‘arch’ as maple syrupers say, toward the back of the evaporator to the chimney. Since the evaporator is so long and the fire is positioned near the front, the flames get stretched/drawn-out almost horizontally towards the chimney, to almost a metre in length at times (witnessing the power of the blaze once it gets going is awe-inducing and makes me very glad we mounted a fire extinguisher on the wall within an arms reach for if things were to go awry!). It is this draw from the chimney that heats the length of the flue pans that sit atop the firebox and increases the efficiency of an evaporator. If wet or green wood were to be used instead of dry wood, the crisp, roaring fire that makes an evaporator so efficient would be replaced by a smoldering, smoking mess. Smoldering wood does not create nearly enough heat to evaporate sap into syrup, hence all the fuel preparation maple syrup requires!
As twilight falls, the maple bush burns a mesmerizing pink or gold color. Do not be fooled by the warm colors though: there was nothing warm about the biting temperature!
Our path winds along the side of a field, then cuts into the forest and climbs the slope of the ridge. The path curls through the trees, strategically passing by stands of maples for easier collection in the early spring when snow drifts hinder bucket brigading efforts that our traditional maple sap collection process involves. The warmer temperatures in early March certainly had us fooled – after I motivated 4 family members to help tap some trees the temperatures plummeted to lows of -20C some nights. Getting to take in views like this help make up for my over-eagerness I hope!