Saturday, February 12, 2011

Time to Make the Maple Syrup!

This is a re-post from last year. Enjoy!

REAL Maple Syrup is made from only one thing, tree sap!
City girl me had no clue about this stuff. I grew up thinking that the store bought corn syrup concoction called "Log Cabin" (how quaint) was "maple" syrup...well was I ever duped...and worse, many city folks were missing out on the good stuff!

Northwestern Massachusetts is rife with the perfect kind of maple syrup tree. Over 100,000 gallons of the stuff was produced in Massachusetts alone last year. Canada makes the most syrup in the world, (730,000 gallons) and 80% of our North American maple syrup.
Looking to break my cabin fever, I attended a Maple Syrup lecture this morning, arranged by Berkshire Living Magazine. They had recently done an article on maple syrup for their Jan-Feb issue (now on the stands). It was free too!

The slide show and talk "SAP HAPPY!" was presented by the Leabs, who have family-run IOKA VALLEY FARMS since 1936. Ioka is located in Hancock, MA, which is just a hop, skip and jump down the road from our 1896 House. They do stuff year round for family fun and produce.

Come up and stay with us at the 1896 in February or March and go visit Ioka! It's only 15 minutes away, and close to Jiminy Peak Ski Resort, another worthwhile destination, so you can combine it with a ski trip!

The Native American Indians dis-covered maple syrup's sweet glory and taught the Euro settler/invaders how to make it.
It was used as a sweetner instead of cane sugar, which was expensive and rare for hundreds of years.
During wartime, when rationing was underway, many housewives  substituted maple sugar for white sugar in their recipes to help the war effort. At only 40 calories per spoonful compared to 78 calories in white sugar, it is a healthier option.

The Euro Settlers took it up a notch with their boiling techniques and we now have modern day syrup and many by products.
There is no real difference between VT mountain syrup and flatland NY syrup, like you would think when you compare wine grapes, though slight differences in weather conditions, soil, and pollution can affect the flavor and sweetness strength in any state. 

The biggest threat to maple trees (besides the road salt used on snowy streets), comes in the form of an insect known as the Asian LongHorned Beetle. This icky looking bug is about the size of a large cockroach, but moves slowly as it crawls up walls and trees. It burrows into the bark and lays it's eggs.

When they hatch, the larve eat the tree from the inside out. There is no natural predator for these bugs, so they can be a plague for maples. It will kill forests unless stopped. YIKES.

How did these beetles get here? Chinese imports shipped in wooden crates about 10 years ago arrived carrying beetle eggs inside the untreated wood slats. The eggs hatched and the beetles struck out into the nearest hardwood forests.
New pest control laws require wooden crates to be chemically treated to prevent this, but it's too late...and China is battling these creatures to save their wood just as we are.
The beetles have traveled from NY, L.A.  and Chicago munching their way across New England, attacking mostly hardwoods and maples. They are in MA, but not yet spotted in the Berkshire area, or not reported yet if they are here.
If you see one of them, please call in their location (or e-mail) to the MA Dept of Agricultural Resources: 866-702-9938. They  inspect a reported area and cut down the known affected trees, then burn the wood to prevent the spread of more bugs. It is really a horrible infestation and should be taken seriously by tourists and locals alike.

Though not prominent here, there are diseases and viruses, similar to the Dutch Elm Disease that took the beautiful Elm tree population from us less than 100 years ago. Some of these are Maple Wilt, Sap Streak and Tar Spot, as well as other fungi. Thank goodness trees have some defenses built in, but we need to monitor them. While some farmers spray their trees with pesticides, it can have a negative impact on the environment, so most do not. Maple syrup processing is almost totally organic with total respect for nature.

February is upon us, so somewhere after the 15th, when the weather decides to cooperate and make freezing nights and warmer days, the maple tree sap starts to flow...
Farmers and syrup enthusiasts run for the woods with their taps, their cordless drills and their buckets and hoses...Maple Sugaring Time is Here!

It only lasts about 6 weeks, then the angry trees change their sap to feed their budding leaves in April, making it cloudy and way too bitter for syrup. Sugar Time is over for the year, so maple syrup producers have gotta move fast! Sugaring does not harm the tree if done responsibly and correctly.

Ioka Valley Farms has a Sugar House (also known as a sugar shack) that is open to the public on weekends beginning February 13th, so you can watch the magic happen for yourselves. 
Sample their delicious, pure home grown maple syrup in all the main grades...oh ya, did I mention there are different grades of syrup?
Let's start with how to make it...

First you wait for the right weather conditions to make sure the tree is starting the sap flowing. The sugar maple tree has the best sap, compared to other kinds of maples, because of it's concentration of sugar and excellent taste. A tree has to be at least 30-40 years old before you can tap into it for syrup. It will produce sap for 150 years.

Now drill a small hole about 1" deep and about 1/3" diameter. Place your hose tap or metal spigot into the hole and either hang a bucket on it, or run the hose from it to a master container.
You can put 2 taps into one tree, but you cannot use the same hole twice. The tree heals itself and that hole is dead for future tapping.
Consider that each tree tap only pulls out about 1 quart of sap per 6 week sugaring season, so it really takes a lot of trees to make enough to sell for profit.
Ioka Valley Farm has about 4000 trees tapped and is aiming for 5000 in the 2010 season coming up in a few weeks. Rob Leab has been making this syrup since his first batch in 1993 and has perfected a safe, healthy and earth friendly product that tastes out of this world good!
The sap is pumped by tubes into a large container. Now it's in the hands of the Sugarhouse (boiling room) operator to make it into syrup. A fairly new technology to many sugar houses is a machine that performs reverse osmosis, taking some of the water out of the sap prior to boiling it down. That helps reduce the time and energy it would take to make syrup...most modern sugar houses use oil burners, not wood fires.

The sap has to boil down to a syrup density of 67% sugar and reach a constant temperature of 219'. It should pour in sheets or "aprons" rather than individual drips. Experienced syrup makers know the look of the bubbles on the surface of the boiled sap.
The final step in the process is to pour the hot syrup through a large cloth filter. This resembles a coffee filter, but is much larger and usually cloth. This removes the sediment from the syrup.

It is important to pour it into sterile containers at this point.

It takes 40 gallons of sap to boil down to 1 gallon of! Takes a couple-three hours to finish a batch, then start another, and another and another until the season ends and you are exhausted.
The Maple Association has a "Wrap Party" at the end of season where all the weary syrup makers party hardy!
Sunlight breaks down the flavor, so while there are great "shaped" glass maple syrup containers, (great tourist gifts), it is best to buy serious syrup for your own use in containers that do not let light in.

While there is a guidebook that shows FDA standards and helpful co-syrup producers to spot errors in processing, there are no official inspections for maple syrup, so you have to trust who is making it.
The Massachusetts Maple Association can help you with locating syrup farms, syrup making techniques, as well as instructions how to store it and recipes.

Syrup is great, but there are other products you can make. Maple Taffy can be created at 233', Maple Cream is syrup cooked to 236' and Maple Peanuts & Popcorn Coating is best cooked to 250'.

Hard Maple Candy, while delicious, is risky and difficult. It tends to be costly because of the pain it is to make. You have to heat the syrup to 295' and it hardens in the trays...could stick to the pans or worse, catch fire, so requires serious monitoring. Maple sugar is even more work to process.

Maple syrup is highly flamable and many a sugarhouse has burnt to the ground after an unmonitored batch boiled over. You would not want to make it in the house kitchen because the steam that rises from syrup is very moist and thick. It peeled the wallpaper in Mr. Leab's house when he first tried it.
 My personal favorite by-product is Maple Cotton Candy...amazing taste and gotta try it!

GRADING is based on when in the sugaring season the sap is gathered to use and how dark or light the color is of the syrup.

The quality is the same, only the color and flavor strength is different. The first sap that comes at the beginning of the season yields a light colored very delicately flavored syrup. Grade AA Fancy, this eventually begins to turn a medium then a darker amber color as the season changes the sap with weather.
As the tree begins to try to heal the tap wound, bacteria forms in the sap near the tap wound that will carmelize and color the syrup.
As the syrup gets darker, Grade B, the taste becomes a stronger maple flavor.  Grade A syrup is best to make hard candy with, as well as pour on ice cream. Table syrup that you would put on pancakes is generally a Grade B darker syrup.

Grade C is the last of the season sap and is very very strong and dark, so is usually sold to "fake" syrup producers who add corn syrup and other additives to it to lesson it's heavy flavor.

Maple Syrup lasts forever. Like Honey, it heals itself and does not spoil. If stored in a cool, dark place, it will retain it's flavor and quality for years. If it crystalizes, just heat it up to clarify it and it returns to it's old self. Cool huh?
 Today's event ended with a variety of grades of syrup tasting out in the hall. Velvety and delicate AA all the way to Dark B with it's wonderful mapleness.

I bought some maple sugar, which I with love to use with my apple, autumn food, and cookie recipes.
I cannot wait to stop over at IOKA VALLEY FARMS in a few weeks for a pancake breakfast with real maple syrup at their cleverly named CALF-A restaurant... and of course to watch them boil that sap!

Hey, in case you didn't know it, maple syrup is GOOD FOR YOU! I found the below info online...

What Are the Health Benefits of Grade B Maple Syrup?
Grade B maple syrup is the most viscous concentration of the syrup. It is harvested during the end of the sap season, and resembles molasses more than its counterpart Grade A maple syrup. The potency and richness of Grade B maple syrup amplifies its health benefits.

Compared to Grade A, Grade B maple syrup has elevated levels of sucrose, fructose and glucose. In addition to providing a source of energy, sugars aid pain management by reducing the body's sensitivity and enhancing natural relief.

Grade B maple syrup also has elevated levels of manganese, a mineral that has antioxidant properties. Manganese supports overall body function and can help lower high triglyceride and cholesterol levels.

Grade B maple syrup also fortifies the body with zinc. Apart from functioning as an antioxidant, the essential mineral strengthens the heart by replenishing and preserving endothelial cells.

Manganese and zinc, the predominant minerals in Grade B maple syrup, support immune system function by contributing to cell growth and maintaining healthy levels of white blood cells.

The two principal minerals in Grade B maple syrup have also been observed to contribute to male reproductive health. Manganese is involved in the production of male sex hormones, and zinc can help reduce prostate size.

Now here is a video on how to make maple syrup...