Katy Andersen, Gourmet Curator, Lot18
Native Americans figured out the secret of tapping the maple tree long before settlers arrived. Even today, nothing beats drenching a stack of fluffy pancakes with real maple syrup. But this simple pleasure isn’t so simple to make; it takes hard work to produce – days of it, in fact.
Maple syrup starts with the maple tree – four different species to be exact. These trees store starch in their trunks and roots as fuel to survive the winter. By the first thaw, they have converted it to sugar. This sap runs through the trees until the first spring buds burst into leaf, and once harvested and heated for hours, it becomes liquid gold.
But in the end, maple syrup boils down to simple mathematics. The average tree yields at least a liter per day of sap, depending on its age and the number of taps. In one season, which lasts between six and eight weeks, a tree will produce between 5 to 15 gallons of sap, roughly 10 percent of the tree’s entire sugar stores, according to Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking.
With all the sap, let the bubble, toil and trouble begin. It takes 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup – no small forest. The longer the sap has to boil, the darker and more concentrated the maple syrup becomes.
At artisanal sugarhouses such as Mead & Mead’s, sap is boiled down in small batches from single trees. These micro-batches are important: Sap harvested earlier in the year contains more sucrose than at the end of the season, so it boils down to pure syrup faster. Thus early-season syrup is lighter and more delicate in flavor, and is typically graded A. The darker and more concentrated the flavor, the lower the grade.
The days of work it takes to extract and simmer this nectar is reason enough to appreciate each syrup-soaked bite for more than just its incredible flavor. With small-batch producers like Mead & Mead’s, the payoff from all that work has never been so pure.
Follow my epicurean adventures on Twitter @KathrynAndersen