Maple syrup luxury
When the nights are below freezing but the days are warmer, that is when sap rises in the maple trees. At a time when we long for any sign of spring, maple syrup provides the first harvest of the year to reassure us that life is coming back into the earth.
Maple syrup is a true North American food. Long before recorded history, Native American families gathered in sugar camps in early spring. They inserted hollowed elderberry stems into cuts on the sunny side of maple trees to convey the sap into birchbark containers. On a good day, the containers needed emptying every hour, multiplied by hundreds of trees, requiring all hands on deck.
Maple sap makes a lightly sweet watery drink as is, and I wonder when someone will think of marketing the next big thing since coconut water—maple water! However, to preserve and concentrate the distinctive maple flavor, it must be boiled down into syrup or sugar.
In former times, Native Americans heated rocks and placed them into birchbark containers of sap to make it boil, gradually driving the water off as steam. Removing the frozen layer of ice that forms on stored sap overnight also helps concentrate the sap. It takes thirty to forty gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup during the “moon of boiling.” Further cooking makes granulated sugar which does not spoil in warm weather.
Native Americans preserved enough maple sugar to use all year in grains, stews, tea, fish, meat and vegetables. The Anishinabeg, or Ojibway, people of northern Minnesota rarely had salt, so maple sugar was their preferred seasoning.
European settlers were quick to catch on, and brought wooden buckets and iron pots to make the collecting and cooking process easier. New England dairy farmers worked together at their sugar shacks to collect sap and keep the fires burning. Called “country sugar,” maple sugar was usually the only sugar available to colonial farmers, since cane sugar was rare and expensive.
More recently, clever inventors created flat pans for greater surface area, and added baffles to enable the continuous addition of sap while simultaneously drawing off completed syrup.
I have a theory about how maple syrup was first conceived by indigenous people. The marvelous complexity of it all—primarily one kind of tree, for just a few weeks of the year, only during particular weather conditions, requiring long processing and hard work—suggests that maple syrup might easily have remained a deep secret of the forest.
I happened to discover the probable origin all by myself, one late winter day while walking on the shrinking remains of snow in the woods. I came across a perfect icicle hanging from a broken maple branch. Naturally, I plucked it, and then tasted faint maple sweetness concentrated in the delicious ice. Indigenous people may have dreamed about ways to get more after just such a taste of a maple icicle. Our human sweet tooth is a powerful drive.
Several native myths tell their cultural story of how it all began. One story has it that one day a young man came upon an apparently empty village, only to discover every resident lying down in the woods, collecting maple syrup as it dripped from the trees right into their mouths. Furious that everyone was so lazy, he dumped huge amounts of water into the trees and decreed that hereafter people would have to work hard to hunt, fish and garden the rest of the year, and only collect maple sap in the late winter.
A more gracious story from the Mohawk tribe tells that long ago people suffered and barely lived through the long winters. The Creator saw the sadness of the people and asked the tree nation if they could do something to restore happiness. The leader of the maple trees offered to give its blood to the people so they may be restored to good health. So it was that at the end of winter the sap flowed freely from the maple, making a dark and sweet soup which the people drank and renewed their bodies and lifted their spirits.
Oh, the luxury of a gallon of real maple syrup. If you don’t wait too long, you can find your own renewal and happiness at various Amish farms in the area. You may have seen the telltale signs of plastic bags hanging on trees in roadside forests. Nearby, someone is surely making and selling maple syrup.
Maple Custard Pudding
So smooth and delicious, this is worth the effort.
Boil an inch of water in the bottom of a double boiler, or fit any pot over another pan of boiling water.
In the upper pan, mix 6 tablespoons of cornstarch and 1/4 teaspoon of salt.
While stirring, gradually add 3 and 7/8 cups whole milk and 3/4 cup maple syrup. Stir frequently for 8-10 minutes, until it just begins to thicken. Cover and cook 10 minutes more.
Beat two eggs well, and stir in 1 cup of the milk mixture to warm the eggs. Then return the egg mix to the milk mixture and cook 2 minutes, stirring constantly.
Remove from heat and stir gently to release steam. Add 1 teaspoon vanilla. Pour into molds or a bowl, and after it cools it will thicken a bit more. Store in the refrigerator.