Food: The sweet flow of spring
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life it’s this…if someone gives you a bottle of home brewed maple syrup, you’re really loved.
Believe it or not, I never had the pleasure of trying real maple syrup until I moved to the Northwoods many years ago. And even then, when a good friend gave me a jar of his own hard-won elixir, I accepted it with little fanfare. In fact, it sat in my refrigerator for over a month before I actually opened the bottle and generously poured it over a stack of pancakes. What an eye-opening experience. Since that day, maple syrup has been a staple in my diet.
Once I got a taste of the stuff, I was more than curious about it, and made it a point to visit sugar camps every spring to write a story about the efforts of gathering sap and the patience it takes to boil gallons of watery liquid into a golden elixir. In my career as a newspaper reporter I have visited sugar camps of every size, and they all fascinate me.
I’ve been to establishments where hundreds of trees were tapped and were connected together with miles of plastic tubing that congregated into a central tank where steam rose consistently from a sugar shack. I’ve been to sugar camps where only a few trees were tapped and the sap was gathered bucket by bucket as enthusiasts tramped through knee-deep snow to empty the laden containers.
And then one year I got to experience firsthand the fun and satisfaction of gathering sap and boiling my own batch. That happened when a friend, who had all the equipment, was called out of the country in the midst of syrup season, leaving the entire operation up to me.
Five gallon buckets hung on more than 35 trees that were situated on a slice of land that bordered a small lake. The snow was slow to melt that year, and it wasn’t long before the paths between the trees were slimy with slush. Each bucket, many of which were more than half-full, had to be carried to a pickup truck where they were poured into big plastic bins that were used as storage tanks.
Once enough sap was gathered, it was time for the slow and meticulous process of boiling it down into a golden flow of goodness. As a rule, it takes at least 40 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup and that process requires vigilance and patience.
While some producers use gas-powered stoves to heat their sap, I like the old school way of using wood. I think it adds a different flavor dimension to the syrup; sort of a smoky, robust hint of early spring.
My friend’s operation included a very small wood stove with a wide metal sap pan that was set on top. Once enough sap was gathered for a boil, the slow and careful process started. This required many hours of sitting around the stove, carefully tending the fire and regulating the amount of sap that was added to the pan at strategic intervals.
These proceedings were thoroughly enjoyed by me as I basked in the new warmth of early spring, watching smoke rise languidly from the fire and sucking in the faint, sweet fragrance of the beginnings of what I knew was to turn into a golden harvest of sweetness. And it proved to be a joyful beckoning to friends and neighbors as they were more than happy to sit around this fire also, keeping me company, imbibing on constitutional building beverages while watching the clear liquid turn into spring’s most welcome tonic.
The last part of the boil requires a careful eye. One ill-timed moment away from the stove can result in the sap going from just the right consistency to a sugary mass that results in maple candy. And while this concentrated substance is delicious in itself, it is a solid material that no pancake can absorb.
This year I had the pleasure of visiting, and writing about, the sugar camp of Dave and Penny Sloan and their son Dave Jr., and you can read about it on the front page of this paper. Like many of the other maple syrup enthusiasts I have written about over the years, the Sloans were happy to be out in the woods, reconnecting with nature after this long and cold winter.
And by the way, as timing would have it, I just consumed the last of my maple syrup from last year. If anyone is interested in spreading a little love, I’m up for the challenge!
Homemade Crunchy Maple Quinoa Cereal
1 1/2 cups cooked quinoa
1 Tbsp. chia seeds
2 Tbsp. pure maple syrup
1/2-3/4 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. vanilla
pinch or two of sea salt
In a small bowl, mix everything together. Pour onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Break up into chunks with a spoon and flatten with a hand as if you were making flatbread. Cook for 30 to 50 minutes at 325oF, being sure to check halfway through, and adjust cooking time if necessary (longer for crispier). Flip cereal around with a spatula for more even cooking. Cereal should be slightly golden brown when finished. Remove from oven and cool. Enjoy in a bowl with your favorite milk and toppings over the top!