March 12th was opening day, so to speak. First, we dragged up our supplies from the cellar; took inventory and rewashed thirteen blue plastic sap buckets, matching lids and spiles. The yard is glare ice as we shuffled out into the cold sunshine arms wide and filled with blue plastic. Warren handled the drilling: thirteen holes, half an inch wide and two inches deep. We only needed six mature maple trees. Previous experience from two past seasons had taught us not to tap the linden trees by mistake and to not bother with the crimson king maples. Our star performer has been the wonderful old maple that towers over our driveway. This majestic beauty can take four sap pails.
I suppose you could now refer to us as ‘experienced’. My parents produced maple syrup for years at the farm. I have always found it thrilling – another sign that we are not ordinary retired folk. I proudly give away our syrup to friends. It is also a regular ingredient in my kitchen, added to salad dressings, stews and sauces plus my yogurt of course. I love our abundance of maple syrup. All it takes is good spring weather. Above freezing by day. Below freezing each night. But grab those precious few weeks while you can. Once passed the opportunity is lost for another year.
Every morning before breakfast Warren heads out to gather sap. Some mornings all that is waiting is a thick slab of ice inside the pails. Throughout the day, Warren keeps a watchful eye on the pails ensure the sap doesn’t brim over. Some days when it is really flowing he has emptied them three times.
April 1st. We have fifty orange Home Depot buckets lined up inside the garage waiting. That’s enough. 200 gallons in all. We dissemble the sap pails and hammer wooded dowels into the tapped holes. It is too windy and cold today to fire up the stoves. We delay the boiling.
Tuesday April 2nd, we start the sugaring off. Two stoves are assembled on our kitchen stoop. Each stove burns 150,000 BTUs. That’s a lot of power. Warren hammers together a wooden frame and hangs a tarpaulin tarp to provide shelter from the wind and dust. Inside our makeshift sugar shack we can barely hear each other over the roar from the propane stoves.
Sugaring off operation gets underway each morning around eight am. Warren lugs out ten great sloshy 5- gallon pails from the garage into the kitchen. This is our daily supply of sap. Our goal is to boil this down all day letting evaporation reduce the volume to a ratio of 30:1. By 7 p.m. every night we shut down the operation. Before the cold sap hits the stoves we give it a good straining to remove any impurities such as leaves or bark. My job is to hold the filter wide over a spare empty bucket while Warren wrestles control over the flow of sap pouring into the filter bag. This operation is not always easy.
“Slowly now, wait wait. Oops”
The filter slips through my fingers, folds on to itself and we splash sap down our legs onto the kitchen floor. “Damn”
We have two 12 x 18-inch stainless steaming trays set up on top of the propane stoves. All day long we hang close, regularly checking the level of the boiling sap. Whenever the levels drop, we top up with new sap. Hour by hour it boils away. By 7 p.m. all of the day’s orange pails are empty and we have two noticeably brown boiling trays left to cool. We store this semi syrup product in the garage until day 5.
This is our routine for the next four days. Constant vigilance on the boil. Topping up the levels. Empty pails need washing. A major scrub down every evening: boiling trays, oven mitts and filter bags. Our social calendar is kept clear except for the daily trips to town to buy more propane. We push on.
Saturday April 6th. We have four – five gallon buckets of brown semi syrup to finish off today. We now want to reduce this by half. It shouldn’t take too long. Warren wants to rely on his hydrometer but I prefer my tried and true candy thermometer. The final syrup comes off the flame when the boil reaches 219 degrees.
Same scenario – we start the day with a final filter and then wait around to watch the boil. I test the heat. 210 degrees. We top up and gradually the heat climbs again. 211 degrees. Another top up. We only have one half a bucket left to eventually pour into the boiling trays. Almost done.
Eleven a.m. and the boil is still only at 215 degrees. I start to question if I shouldn’t pop into town now to pick up some groceries. Warren assures me that he’s got it. I’m back in half an hour and take the temperature again 217 degrees in one tray and 216 in the other. This is taking all day. I go in the house to clean. I can see Warren hanging around outside, waiting.
Approximately five minutes later I look through the kitchen door window but can’t see Warren. Surely, he can’t have gone far? I head out to the stoves and check the boil. At first, I can’t understand what I’m looking at. One tray is still boiling but the second tray is …… well its gray/brown foam.
“What the hell?” Realization explodes in my brain. “Oh my God! Warren!” I scream. I grab at the control dials and shut the flame off. In a quick dash I head down the walkway to his garage. Where else would he be – working on his cars.
Moving on….. The two of us stand together and assess the burnt mess in the one tray. Obviously, the boil had obviously reached 216. At that point the consistency of the liquid changed. Tiny, tiny bubbles erupted like a volcano and boiled over the sides of the pan. We can see black char burnt into the pan and a great puddle lies under the stove. What a mess. We probably lost a quarter of our entire intake of sap. Inside the tray it looks like foam insulation except its dark gray/brown and cracked dry.
With nothing more to lose, we decide to take the last few cups of semi-syrup remaining in the bucket and add this liquid to the foam mess. We give it a stir and surprising it comes back to live – more or less. We stir the concoction a little more and pick out some of the larger pieces of burnt charcoal.
We decide to give it just a little bit of a boil to blend the new liquid with the old foam. Just a short little boil and then we remove two trays from the flame.
That is, it. The boiling phase is over. No one is pointing fingers about what happened to the last tray. I feel as much to blame as Warren. We both knew we were at the end stage so why did we both goof off? So discouraging. Such a waste of resources, time and energy. But what is done is done.
On to the bottling assembly line. We have two batches. The good stuff and the burnt.
I used a permanent black marker to label the jar lids with the year and descriptive name. “GS” obviously stands for good stuff and “Old English” is our code word for the much darker burnt toffee flavoured batch. This one is an acquired taste.
Now begins the big sticky clean up. I dawn plastic gloves protect my hands from the scorching water as we sterilize the thermometers, hydrometer and sap pails. The stainless-steel boiling trays are garbage. At least one is for sure.
Once we air dry everything, it is hauled back down to the cellar, cover and stored.
I washed that damn floor yet again. It wasn’t until I thought of washing the soles of Warren’s running shoes that I started to make real process.
Meanwhile Warren has hoses run up from the utility sink in the basement and is power washer the kitchen stoop. Hot spray blasts the sugary glaze coating the propane stoves, tanks and flagstone porch. The green tarpaulin tent is dissembled and folded away.
Fifty-five glass jars of maple syrup are our take away, all stored in the cellar pantry. Job done. I’m done in. I don’t recall feeling this worn out in previous years. It may have been our last year for sugaring off.