It’s easy to live a vintage life in the country. For example, our house comes with some property and on it, a little forest.
And having a forest, as we do, Practical Man likes to meander through it daily. He communes with The Nature in a way that I will never understand.
I love him, anyway.
You may recall that The Nature is my fair-weathered friend. Or rather, my only-in-weather-where-it’s-not-too-too-shivery-and-not-too-sweaty-and-there-definitely-can’t-be-any-bugs friend.
That is, approximately 3.6 days per year.
And, any of you who are sympathetic to The Nature and shocked at my cantankerous relationship with it, you can just calm down. The Nature is not all sweetness and innocence. The Nature has its moods, lemme tell ya. Just ask anyone who lives in the Canadian Maritime provinces right about now.
Up to their wazoos in snow, for the umpteenth time, they are.
And, if you don’t know where your wazoo is, well, if you ask a Maritimer, it’s approximately 3 feet above the average bungalow’s roof.
But, Practical Man doesn’t share my suspicion and distrust of The Nature. He’s a frolicker in rain or shine, snow or bugs. It’s weird, I say, from my perch safely indoors, where I am quite content to look outside through a window (in the manner of wise Canadians before me.)
Being a frolicker and fan of The Nature as he is, Practical Man’s favourite time all year is here: maple syrup season.
Very vintage activity.
Did you know that you can make that stuff you put on pancakes out of TREE JUICE?
The Nature is so weird.
In February, Practical Man starts to feverishly check the weather network…I mean, his Farmer’s Almanac…several times a day and then, proceeds to tap any sugar maple trees at the first sign that the temperature is going a few degrees above zero (Celcius) during the day and a few degrees below zero (Celcius) at night.
This year, we are nearly a month late.
The Nature likes to toy with us humans in this way.
We usually have around 30 sugar maple trees tapped, give or take. Some trees are thick enough around, that they can handle two taps:
I feel an affinity with these trees. Being thick enough around, I think I’m a two tap tree, myself.
Hook me up. I can take it!
But, I still say an extra little thank you under my breath when I pass these guys.
Practical Man came up with this ingenious sap collection system, using old (cleaned) water bottles, some sap tubing, a spigot (the part that goes into the tree) and ta-da! plastic wine glasses from the dollar store. The wine glasses have their bases removed and the sap tubing is threaded through their necks so that the glasses hang upside down over each bottle neck. The sap then drip, drip, drips down into the bottle.
This upside-down-wine glass system prevents rain and when it’s warmer, moths, from getting into the sap. The big bottles also mean that on days when the sap is really flowing, there will be no tragic overflows, as can sometimes happen when you use the old system of buckets like these:
There has been enough sap in one day some years that these buckets fill completely and then…shock, disaster! They overflow, losing precious sap on the ground.
Have you ever seen a Practical Man weep?
I blame The Nature.
Now, we leave one “demonstration tree” with its old-fashioned bucket so that kids and visitors can see how it used to be done.
Don’t let that lid fool ya. It’s cool and vintage but, it doesn’t keep out much rain or moths.
Then, depending on The Nature and the speed of sap flow, Practical Man collects sap for a week or so before he boils it off into syrup. You can’t store sap for too long without it spoiling and you can’t keep a Practical Man cooped up in the house, when the smell of Spring is in the air.
Early in the morning, on boil day, Practical Man goes to the stove he built for maple syruping (maple syrup turns into a verb in Ontario in the Spring). He gets some logs and kindling…
And then, he starts a fire in the stove…
It burns at approximately 3 trillion degrees.
Our stove is an old household oil tank, turned on its side. Holes were cut in the (now) top to hold six pans over the fire. A door was cut in the (now) end so that he can load the logs (and chewing gum). He’s got draft holes with tubes running through the firebox so he can control the burn. A chimney off the (now) top/back of the tank draws the smoke up and out.
Those things up against the tank are paving stones. They insulate the tank somewhat so that you can get near it without singeing off parts of your skin (important for when I come out to play, since I come from long line of klutzes, including one person who cut herself on an onion bun.)
To keep the sap until he boils, Practical Man stores it in (new) clean garbage buckets. If it’s getting warm, he packs snow around them to keep the sap cool until boil day.
Yep, that’s sap ice in there. It hasn’t warmed up yet, but I won’t complain (see earlier note about The Nature and the maritime provinces) because that would just be rude to our PEI, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick friends.
On boil day, the sap is gradually put in the 6 pans over the fire. It begins to evaporate off the water and leave the sugar behind. We keep adding more sap as the steam boils off and the remaining sap keeps concentrating and so on and so on. It’s kind of a steamy miracle, really. Or, as I like to call it:
A maple syrup facial.
Then, all day, there is a lovely little dance that involves moving sap from one pan to another. Adding sap from the buckets to the coffee cans around the boil pans so that the new sap can warm up a bit before it’s ladled into the hot pans. Skimming the froth off the top of the sap in the pans, as it boils. Slowly, slowly, over hours and hours, the water evaporates and the remaining sap gets more and more concentrated in sugar.
(Or something like that. Honestly, I’m mostly the photographer, lunch fixer and product tester.)
All I know is, it takes a long time, a lot of work and a lot of patience. At the end of which, you get 40x less syrup than you had sap.
That is…40 litres of sap yields approximately 1 litre of sugar.
I know: all that time, work and patience and we get…what, what, what?!
And how’s this for a little more math: today, we boiled 190 litres of sap and we’ll get around 5 litres of syrup (that luxurious excess is because the first boil of the season is usually sweetest).
This is the part where I confess that I would (might) have boiled sap into syrup once and thought, “Wow, that was really neat (and boy, was it a LOT of time, work and patience.)”
I would never, ever have felt the need to do it again. Nope.
But then, I tend to the indoors and am a die-hard chocolate girl. If you ever find trees that yield sap that turns into chocolate, sign me up! I will boil that baby until the cows come home.
And, I am afraid of cows.
This is maple syrup season #11 for us and Practical Man still loves it.
He looks cute in his lumberjack ensemble too.
What can I say? It keeps me coming back year after year.
The sap is getting syrup-y now. And bubbly. All the better for the maple syrup facial.
Not sure why my eyelashes are sticking to my face.
The fire gets stoked some more:
Slowly, slowly, the pans boil off enough water that the remaining, concentrate sap gets moved to the centre pans. It sounds simple – oh, yes – just move that hot, steaming, scalding pan full of hot, steaming, scalding sap!
Well okay, then.
I’ll stand over here because I am a documented fraidy-cat.
The centre pans contain the most concentrated of all the sap and will become syrup. There is a magic formula that involves a full moon, barometric pressure, the boiling point of water and whether you’re facing east and standing on your left foot (just kidding – you need both feet on the ground when you’re dealing with hot, steamy, scalding sap.)
Anyhoo, today, the super secret special maple magic thermometer had to reach 7 degrees Celcius (that’s hot, steaming, scalding to us lay people) above the boiling point of water before the sap would be the right consistency:
That is to say, it wasn’t SAP anymore.
It was SYRUP!
(I think applause is warranted. It’s taken us hours to get to this point, honestly, I can’t believe you don’t think this deserves a standing ovation).
Finally, it’s time for another treacherous journey: from the last hot, steaming, scalding pan into the first of the filters; a paper one inside a wool one:
Drip, drip, drip.
Yep, it’s definitely syrup.
And, that means that no matter what The Nature has up its sleeve from here on out:
it’s definitely Spring.