In praise of sap

We don’t generally consider it a compliment to call someone a “sap”. Nor is it particularly civilized to hit someone with a sap. But maple sap…ahh, that’s another story.

When spring is in the air, days are sunny with light winds and temperatures above freezing, cold nights…the sap starts running. When winter is still here, we can dream about those days while poring over our seed catalogs.

Maple sap itself seems like nothing special. It looks like water. It takes some discernment to notice its sweetness. But boil it down to about 1/40 of its original volume, and it becomes the golden elixir.

Morning sun and maple tree through maple syrup.

Maple syrup is the perfect antidote to cabin fever. There’s not as much to do on the farm in the depth of winter and it’s not all that fun. But when the sap is running, you hike through the woods, drive the spiles into the trunks, hang the buckets or bags, or run the lines, and wait.

When you have enough sap, you build a fire and the sap goes into a big stainless steel pan to be boiled down. Now you have a place to get warm in between runs. As the day goes on and the sap boils down, the steam rising from the pan begins to feel a bit more sticky. You transfer the near-syrup to a smaller pan to avoid scorching, and get the canning jars ready.

Pour a little into the snow for the treat of maple sugar candy. Enjoy it on tomorrow morning’s pancakes to fuel you up for the next day of collecting. Pour it over ice cream, or add a touch to your morning coffee.

Syrup grading used to reflect the racism in our culture – the lighter the color, the higher the grade. Some of us used to buy only Grade B, the darker and more flavorful syrup. Now they are named by color rather than calling light better. The bottle above is Grade A Dark. It also comes in Golden, Amber, and Very Dark. (There used to be “Light Amber”, “Medium Amber”, and “Dark Amber”.) Lighter colors tend to have more delicate flavors (more hints of vanilla, to some) and darker colors stronger, more maple flavors. Very dark might have smoky nuances. A recent trend has been to age syrup in used bourbon barrels, yielding complex, liqueur flavors (but no alcohol). I don’t use it as my everyday syrup (the bourbon barrel aging adds cost), but it is a great treat. Some went into my Sunday morning cappuccino today. (My weekday coffee is a cortado.) Those with strong preferences might call light syrup tasteless, just sugar; or dark syrup burned tasting.

Years ago I took my kids to a maple syrup festival. In addition to seeing trees tapped and syrup made, they had taste tests. Maple syrup and sugar syrup (ordinary store-bought pancake syrup) were dosed from squeeze bottles (like the ketchup and mustard bottles in a diner). The host squeezed a bit onto a stick for my son to taste. He said, “That’s maple”. The host said, “No, you’re supposed to taste both and then tell me.” My son said, “I don’t need to taste both.” The host insisted on trying again. He squeezed a bit onto a new stick and my son instantly said, “That’s just sugar.” It took several trials before he was willing to taste both before rendering an opinion – though he was never wrong.

A bit later my daughter (2 ½ years younger) walked up to the booth. The same scene entailed. The host was visibly frustrated. I told him, “You can’t fool kids who were raised on maple syrup.” He gave up.

I haven’t helped with maple sugaring for years. The last year I did it, we had modernized. Lines ran from the trees to centrally-located 55 gallon drums. Rather than walking the entire line, we could go to the drum to collect sap for cooking…and the horses, pulling a sleigh, could bring it back to the pan for boiling. Since the trees were scattered along multiple hillsides, it saved a lot of walking; but I’m still not sure that was a good thing. Walking the trail on a late winter morning to see if the sap is running yet is kinda like checking for presents under the Christmas tree…

Another kind of sap

In the fall we have another syrup season – sorghum. Sorghum is northern sugar cane. (“Northern” being a relative term, as most sorghum grown for syrup in the US is in the south.) We grew it in southwestern Wisconsin, just down the road from where I did my maple sugaring.

We mostly think of sorghum as a grain fed to animals; but we rode through the fields on a wagon, chopping the grain heads off with machetes and cutting the canes at ground level with a mower – that was a lot easier than the back-breaking work of cutting with machetes, which we did my first year on the harvest. When we hand-cut with machetes, we could stack it neatly for transport. The mower dropped stalks in all directions, so we had to gather and arrange it before transporting on the wagon. The canes were then fed into rollers and the juice squeezed out.

Years ago, I wrote a screenplay for a documentary on the sorghum-making process, starting with a helicopter shot of the steep hillsides and deep valleys of the driftless area, zooming in to a tracking shot of the tractor and wagon in the field before cutting to ground-level shots, and featuring an interview with Cap Stussy, the man who taught me. I still have the notes, but I found this YouTube video that saved me the work of production:

The press in the video is run by real horse power. Cap ran his from the PTO (Power Take-Off) on his tractor.

Sorghum is more like molasses than maple syrup – stronger, with a bitterness behind the sweetness. When I used it on pancakes, I sometimes used it mixed with other syrup to sweeten it and reduce the bitterness. It is also sweeter if you keep the grain heads out of the mix.

Pecan pie recipes usually call for corn syrup (Karo syrup). I have used various combinations of light and dark corn syrup, sorghum, and maple syrup. All work and most are tastier than plain light corn syrup. Go bake a pie and tell me about it! (15)