40 gallons of sap
When the syrup is ready, you know it.
What had been, for days, a clear liquid slowly evaporating in a flat pan on the wood stove is finally poured into a smaller pan and allowed to boil on the hotter part of the stove. It turns golden, and when it starts going into a roiling, foaming boil, it’s syrup.
We taste it, just to make sure, and set a spoonful aside to cool so we can taste it again, just to make double sure.
“It’s syrup,” my husband says, “Are you up for it?”
I’m ready. I’ve got a few canning jars sterilized. I pour out the boiling water and pour in the boiling syrup, put on a lid, tighten the ring and that’s it.
As it cools, the lids make that popping sound, indicating a vacuum seal. Two and a half quarts of maple syrup.
When we first moved up north to Maple Land, people tried to convince us that you can’t make your own syrup, that it only makes sense if you invest in a proper evaporating pan and boil outdoors or in a sugar shack. “Unless you’re making more than 50 gallons, it’s just not economical,” people told us. “Remember, it takes 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup.”
That’s true. But if you’re not in a rush, there’s no need to boil. Most people with indoor wood stoves keep a pan of water on the stove to add moisture to the air. If you fill that pan with sap instead of water, you can make slow syrup, in small, family-sized batches, without turning your house into a steam bath.
But for some reason we have trouble convincing anyone of that.
“I tried making syrup in the house one year,” our friend the artist told us. “I made so much steam all the wallpaper came off.”
“But you don’t have to boil it,” we say. “You can evaporate it slowly on the wood stove.”
“Don’t you know it takes 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup?” she answered. “That’s a lot of boiling.”
Another friend taps three huge old maples in her yard, then boils in her garage, using a turkey fryer for a tank, fired with propane. It works great, but she spends enough on propane that her syrup costs almost as much as retail. Still, it’s hers, and it’s become a family tradition.
Two of our neighbors set up boiling operations in sheds, with wood fires going under their evaporator pans. “It’s crazy,” one neighbor told us. “I burned so much wood, and stayed up all night, just for a few gallons of syrup. It doesn’t make sense.”
“You know you can do it slowly, inside, on your wood stove,” I told him.
“Nah,” he said. “Don’t you realize it takes 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup?”
At this point, we’ve given up trying to convince people of the slow, easy and practically free way to make maple syrup. When people come to visit and want to see sugaring in action, we take them up to Hadley Hill, to a proper sugar shack, with steam pouring out of the roof and a guy feeding the fire with long branches.
Inside it’s hot and steamy, and you can get a hot sample, poured into a Dixie cup, and buy a can of syrup. You can walk around the woods, all mud and snow, and look at the buckets hanging from the trees.
It is what my son calls “a scene of natural beauty.” And our visitors leave, understanding the whole sap-to-syrup process.
Back home, in the little stand of mixed woods behind the house, they don’t even notice the buckets, milk jugs and industrial-sized plastic mayonnaise jars hanging on some of the trees. Or the steam-table pan of clear liquid slowly evaporating on the wood stove.
They do notice when my husband walks in the house with a five-gallon pail.
“Who wants some of Nature’s Beverage?” he asks as the kids run for glasses. They like drinking the sap, which is like cold, sweet water. “It’s a tonic,” my husband says.
“What are you doing with that?” the visitors will ask. “You can’t make syrup in a house. Don’t you know it takes 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup?”
My husband pours the sap, through a metal strainer, into the pan. Every day that the sap runs, he’ll keep adding it. If the pan gets too full, we’ll pour some into a smaller pan, and when it starts going golden, we’ll let it boil.
By the end of the run, when the nights stop freezing and the buds emerge, we’ll have made two or three gallons of syrup, canned in pint or quart jars.
Just don’t tell anyone how we do it. They won’t believe you.
Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.
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