By the time Europeans arrived in what is now New England, indigenous Americans had already discovered the lovely nectar with which we drown our breakfast pancakes. When carefully boiled, they found, maple sap turns into maple syrup. Today, artificial syrups dominate the grocery shelf, but pure maple syrup is usually there, too. And it is still made the way Native Americans made it―with 21st-century tweaks, of course.
In spring, sap rises through the trunks of deciduous trees to promote growth and nourish branches and leaves. The sap of maple trees (species Acer) is relatively sweet—especially that of the tree now called the sugar maple (Acer saccharum). By drilling holes into a maple’s trunk, one can release the sap and let it drip into a bucket. Done right, the process does not kill the trees; healthy maples can be tapped spring after spring. The ideal time to gather sap is late winter/early spring, when day temperatures are warmer than 32 degrees and night temperatures still dip below freezing.
Like any other raw food, maple sap may contain harmful bacteria. If you want to taste maple sap, boil it for a couple minutes to kill possible germs. To make maple syrup, try to get yourself into a sugar shack—an out-building with a safe place for boiling and a well-ventilated roof. When heated, maple sap loses water and creates a great deal of steam as it thickens. Cooked correctly, the result is pure maple syrup, the preferred substance of most waffles.
Elizabeth G Fagan is a writer and artist who resides in southeastern Wisconsin—a place she calls Lake Michigan’s Left Coast. She’s endured the curse of being a writer since attending a private arts high school in Connecticut, where the bad habit was encouraged. She also became a photographer at that high school. She spent all the time she could in the school’s darkroom, creating black and white images from film. Alas, a second bad habit acquired.
Fagan is passionate about the natural world and its creatures. She highly recommends the work of Chicago-based nature photographer Mark Swanson.
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