Every winter our family counts down the weeks until the month of March. Sure, it means the arrival of spring, but it also means fresh maple syrup! To enjoy it to its fullest and to celebrate the Ohio Maple Syrup Season, we make our annual visit to the Burton-Middlefield Pancake Breakfast at Berkshire High School which is held every Sunday in March. We’ve been attending since I moved here to Ohio in 2002 and now we bring our children. It is one of the very rare occasions that we go out to breakfast or that we eat pancakes. It was a tradition that Andy’s parents began when he was a kid. You see, this isn’t just any pancake syrup, this is 100% pure maple syrup made right here in Geauga County Ohio. A couple of weeks ago, we brought the kids out to enjoy all-you-can-eat pancakes and sausage, with lots of syrup, waving a stick in the air whenever we wanted more.
After filling our bellies, we always make our way over to the Burton Log Cabin to watch them boil down fresh maple sap into syrup, but mostly so we can each get some maple sugar candy to bring home. But this year, with the cold temperatures lingering into March, the sap wasn’t flowing well yet, so we didn’t get to see them making it. We did however, get plenty of candy.
On our way out into the country during these trips I always notice the tin maple syrup buckets on the trees as we approach. I’ve been wanting to learn more about exactly how this sweet treat is transformed from sap to syrup. So this past weekend I decided to take a drive and an adventure out to an event in Middlefield Ohio at the Swine Creek Reservation of the Geauga County Park District. I wanted to help my children gain an appreciation for how nature and hard work combine to give us this special sweet treat. We learned a lot about how maple syrup has been made over the centuries and how it is created today. But before I show you how sap is turned into syrup, let’s back up a bit.
Sap, the life blood of a tree, is water containing minerals from the soil and sugar produced by the leaves. It is stored in the trunk and roots during the winter and rises in the tree in early spring. By the process of photosynthesis, the trees leaves use the sun’s energy to produce glucose, a simple sugar. In autumn this sugar is converted to starch and is stored in the sap wood during winter. As days begin to warm in late winter, the starch changes to another sugar, sucrose. Syrup can be made from the sap of several kinds of trees, but the sugar maple (the Acer Saccharum) AKA the King of the Forest, is the best in quality and most practical tree for large scale production of syrup. The increase in daytime temps during late winter cause the sap to rise stimulating the growth of buds. Pressure inside the tree is greater than the outside air pressure so any cut made in the tree will drip sap. Sap flows best when daytime temperatures rise above freezing and night time temperatures drop below freezing. Traditionally tapping in this area is done around the middle of February.
OHIO; A MAPLE SYRUP SWEET SPOT
Maple syrup can successfully be made in only a small part of the entire world; around the Great Lakes and eastern Canada. It is in this area that the maple tree, geology, climate and soils combine to create this amazing process. The unpleasant springs that seem never to come allow for the warm days and cold nights so the sap can rise and fall in the tree and be collected in sufficient quantity to make maple syrup. Ohio sits in the heart of this sweet region. Maple syrup is made in 66 of Ohio’s 88 counties with the largest concentration in the northeast section of the state, right here in Geauga County.
TURNING SAP INTO SYRUP OVER THE CENTURIES
Maple syrup is truly an all American food. The Native Americans discovered that the clear sap could add a sweetness to their food. When the first settlers arrived in New England the Native people shared their maple experience. Here’s what we learned yesterday about how the process has evolved.
In the 1700s, Woodland Indians and settlers gashed trees with stone axes. They collected sap in bark containers, heated stones in wood-burning fires and then placed the stones inside the sap to slowly turn it into sugar.
In the 1800s, pioneers sharpened wooden spiles and created holes in the trees and collected the sap in wooden buckets which they would then boil down in iron kettles over wood burning fires.
In the 1900s, farmers began to tap trees with a brace and bit and used cast metal spikes to collect sap in tin buckets. They used early evaporator pans to turn sap to syrup. Tin buckets are still used today, but are quickly being replaced by a newer method. Now, maple sugar farmers drill a hole using a power drill into the maple tree. They use plastic piping to collect the sap from each tree. The pipes are all connected together and eventually lead to one large collection tank. This method saves the farmer many hours from having to collect sap from hundreds of different buckets.
The sap then travels through piping into the Sugar House where it is reduced to syrup by being boiled in large evaporators until most of the water is removed. It is a process that takes about an hour and a half to turn sap into syrup and about 40 or 50 gallons of sap make just one gallon of pure maple syrup. You can begin to see why 100% pure maple syrup can be so pricey. But remember, it is well worth the cost because there is only one ingredient (maple sap) and it is pure, all natural, has no preservatives, no fat, no cholesterol, is low in sodium and rich in calcium, minerals and B vitamins. At the Swine Creek Reservation Sugar House we got to talk to the people making it and taste some fresh syrup straight from the evaporator.
SOME OTHER INTERESTING INFO WE LEARNED:
- It takes about 40 to 80 years for a maple tree to grow big enough to be tapped for sap collection.
- Maple sap is only 2 to 3% sugar. Maple syrup is 66.5% sugar.
- 900 families gather maple sap to make about 100,000 gallons of Ohio Maple Syrup each year.
- When substituting maple syrup for cane sugar in cooking, use only three-fourths the amount of maple sugar as sugar in the recipe.
After watching the process of sap to syrup, we visited the lodge to warm up. We listened to folk music and snacked on popcorn drizzled with syrup, hot chocolate and maple syrup candy.
MAPLE SUGAR CANDY RECIPE
Then we returned home, determined to make our own maple sugar candies. We don’t eat much candy around here, but if I’m going to give my kids candy or splurge on a sweet treat myself, maple sugar candy is the way to go. The only ingredient is 100% pure, all natural, “clean”, maple syrup. I learned today that it is so easy to make that I plan to make it more often to keep on hand when my sweet tooth comes knocking at my door.
All you need is 2 cups of 100% pure maple syrup.
- Pour it into a large heavy bottomed saucepan. Bring the syrup to a boil over medium high heat, stirring occasionally, until the syrup reaches 235 degrees (using a candy thermometer).
- Remove from heat. Cool to 175 degrees without stirring (about 10 minutes).
- Then stir the syrup rapidly for five minutes until the color turns lighter and it begins to get thicker and creamier.
- Pour into molds. Set aside to cool.
As I reflect on what we learned about the amazing process in which maple tree sap can be used to create nutritious, delicious maple syrup, I am once again struck by the miracle of nature. How extraordinary it is that each plant and animal on this great planet of ours was placed here to fulfill a unique purpose. And how awesome that God stocked the Earth with everything each one of his creatures needs to survive and thrive. He even provides us what we need to create a sweet, yet healthful, heavenly treat.