Each year around this time the local road crews begin posting the 6 ton limit signs on the secondary roads. What happens is that as the daily thaws near the surface freezes overnight above the frost line in the subsoil, the paved roads begin to rise and the following day as it thaws once more, fall into declivities leaving a washboard of ruined macadam in its wake. The weight of vehicles that roll over these paved areas determine the extent of damage left behind with larger vehicles inflicting the most damage. The longer the period of thawing and the deeper the year’s frost line render the verdict for each road, some ruined permanently, others left with easily recognized soft spots and ruts that locals drive around like a blind horse for the next eight months when Winter sets the roads up once more in deep ice and some form of driveability. I have no idea how much cumulative damage is done to alignments, underbodies, u-joints and exposed electrical wires, but if cast off hubcaps and randomly worn tires are a sign, it’s got to be in the high hundreds of millions. At least there is a seasonal version of job security for those handy enough with tools to fix the problems caused by the frost heaves.
We’ve learned that the snow always melts over the septic tank first, that the grasses have already begun to green up before the last of the snow is gone, and that when you see plumes of white smoke rising above the clefts and folds of the local valley it isn’t fire that’s causing it, it’s steam jetting skyward from the countless evaporators hidden in sugarhouses throughout the area. A sugarhouse is a simple affair, usually longer than wider, often windowless featuring a huge store of firewood parked under an adjacent overhang where it is easily accessible. Atop the sugarhouse is what appears to be a smaller version built centrally with louvers that drop down on hinges to rest on the sugarhpuse roof when it is in operation. The steam that is produced by evaporation naturally rises into this box and then out through the opened sides into the brilliant blue sky where it rises to the point of condensation. The process in the building is called “boilin’” and it consists of stoking an arch, a rather grim looking firebox roughly equivalent to one of those boilers only seen in a steamship. The fire is fed every eight to ten minutes for as long as the boil — or the sap — lasts, producing temperatures in the sugarhouse well into the nineties, and according to one of those pinpoint temperature tools, over 135 degrees right in front of the arch. A good boil will heat up the cast iron doors of the rig until they glow orange and if old enough, to slowly sag on their hinges. Depending on the number of taps, the rig itself must be able to evaporate anywhere from a hundred to a thousand gallons of water per hour directly up through the rafters of the sugarhouse. The top of the rig is a set of stainless steel pans with a controlled flow of cold sap from a holding tank entering at one end and a temperature controlled draw off tap for 220 degree syrup that flows from the other. Our evaporater is a Grimm Brothers Lightning from the mid 1950’s that is badly in need of new doors, but otherwise an extremely dependable and efficient piece of equipment. Once we get rolling we can draw off five or six times an hour, as much as 50 gallons of syrup on a good day.
Sugaring is one of those inexact sciences where if you do it long enough, like 50 years, you can actually start to learn a little bit. Making syrup is pretty basic; take maple sap, heat it enough to turn the water to steam and make sure that you stop when the remainder left in your pan or pot is roughly 221 degrees. The exact temperature varies based on the ambient air temperature, the rising or falling barometer and your elevation. The use of a hydrometer to measure the exact brix or sugar content of the syrup is helpful for the first few years until you get a sense of what finished syrup looks like. The old timers use a flat scoop to pour off the syrup and if it comes off in a solid sheet rather than in droplets, it’s ready. This method is far less scientific, but curiously far more accurate for getting a perfect rating of 66 brix, or 2/3 suspended sugars. Too little and it isn’t syrup, any more and it will crystalize, wasting the precious syrup by turning it into perfect glass-like cubes of sucrose within the bottle. There are variables, of course, like the sugar content of the sap whcih usually runs at 2-3 percent in most sugar maples to as much as 5 or 6 percent in older, healthier rock maples. A low sugar concentration requires a longer boiling time and the sugars begin to carmelize lending the distinctive dark color that maple syrup is known for. Earlier in the season the sugar contents run higher and the suspended minerals are far fewer meaning that the finished syrup comes off the pan at exactly the right brix level, but at a much lighter color, sometimes as clear as lemon juice, but just as sweet as the blood red grade B dark from the tail end of the season. The variation in flavor is distinct as well with the early ‘Fancy’ grade tasting like a fine butterscotch — this is the grade most often used to produce candy and sugar — to the heavy and quintessential maple flavor of the later grades that carry within them the atomized particles of metamorphic rock like granites and igneous porphyries. There is, I often tell foodie types, a terroir to each syrup, each grade, each year and there is. To see what the year brings is an adult version of Christmas morning. Nothing recalls Springtime to me in the same way as that very first taste of steaming syrup fresh off the rig while you stand there drenched in sweat, hidden by a cloud of vapor. It is one of the greatest rewards of what we do and makes all the effort worth it.
There is an oft repeated story of how the Native Americans discovered the art of maple production that goes like this: An Indian chief threw his tomahawk at a maple tree and the sap fell into a clay vessel that his wife was using in the preparation of some venison. As it cooked down they noticed a sweetness that was most delicious and thus was the art of maple syrup first conceived.
Yeah, well, not likely. Tomahawks were a European tool brought in for early trade. You couldn’t boil sap into syrup in a clay pot no matter how much you wanted to and it’s likely that the sweetness of maple sap was known for thousands of years. It’s far more likely that they intensified the sugar content through freezing the sap during the early months of the season and removing the ice, leaving the concentrated sugars behind and then added this to their corn meal and cooked using traditional methods of depositing heated stones into their clay or bark cooking vessels rather than evaporating. The European settlers capitalized on this information by using iron and copper pots to speed up the process and thus was the maple syrup boom born. In fact, it was widely assumed from the earliest years of the colonization of the North American continent that the sugar produced from maples would be the leading agricultural product of the day until it was later displaced by sugar cane and the plantation production system. Small homestead production of maple sugar was nice, but based on the seasonality, the effort required and the lack of storage vessels required for mass production, this idea quickly faded from view. The practice continued to signal both the arrival of Spring in the northeast and contributed greatly to the economics of the small scale homesteader by providing a commodity in surplus for trade, but never acheived the success hoped for in the early years. It wasn’t until the Civil War that maple production came back into play in a major way when the cane fields of the south were closed to northern markets. Those farmers that were capable of producing substantial quantities during that period became wealthy men. The taste for maple syrup continued well into the middle of the 20th century until the arrival of maple flavored corn syrup destroyed the market, collapsing prices and driving the production down by almost 90%. The knowledge lost during the years that followed as old time syrup producers sold off equipment and logged their maple orchards for lumber cost this country almost all of its capacity to produce syrup except on the hobbyist level. It wasn’t until the advent of plastic tubing and the rise of the organic food movement in the late 70’s that the practice gained a foothold once again. Outpaced by the Canadian production system, similar in many ways to middle east oil cartels, the American production of maple syrup only began to grow to any noticable level within the past 20 years. Today its production levels are growing at record pace and people are willing to pay the price, often twenty times as much as for the mass produced, artificially flavored, high fructose corn syrup varieties offered by the big agricorp companies, just to get their hands on the natural goodness and unique flavor that can only be produced for a few weeks a year in one small portion of the world by small time homestead operations at great cost and seasonal risk. Anyone who has ever sampled it, drizzled warm over ice cream, mixed in a cocktail, as a glaze on roasted meat or even poured over a stack of steaming flapjacks understands just how good it is.
The signs are everywhere now; 6 TON LOAD LIMIT BEWARE OF FROST HEAVES. As you drive down winding pathways that define the old time phrase “you can’t get there from here”, your jaws clenched from the rapid drops and falls of ruined road, you can look into the dells and hollows behind each mountain and see the heavenward drift of white steam, dissipating as it rises. You can almost smell the sweet scent of spring, coming as it does to the baleful cadence of maple sap dropping, plonk, plonk, plonk one drop at a time into metal buckets hung from spiles driven into the gray bark of trees, the same way it has been done for hundreds of years. It is truly the sweetest time of the year.