Thursday, March 6, 2008

Making Maple Syrup

'Tis the season of warming days and cold nights, when the sap in the maple trees flows up and down. I have fond memories of my mother making maple syrup for our family. As a child I took this for granted, just a routine activity that any family with access to maples trees would do. Later, when I heard that a Danvers Girl Scout troop was coming to watch Mrs. Nichols make maple syrup, I realized that this was a special skill from the past. Please read this month's column, published today under the headline "Making Maple Syrup."

Here is the text I submitted to the Danvers Herald:

Making Our Own Maple Syrup
By Sandy Nichols Ward

Every spring my mother made maple syrup. I helped hang the coffee cans, blue Crisco cans, and other saved cans onto the collection spouts on the sugar maple trees. My father had drilled holes for the taps, and put a metal spout in each. We used the big maple trees that grew along both sides of the old carriage road, or 'back avenue', of the former Locust Lawn estate. My parents said we couldn't tap the young trees, only the older ones that had sap to spare.

The sap was a disappointment at first. I thought it would be sweeter. It tasted mostly like water, just slightly sweet. Better than the sap were the icicles sometimes found hanging from maple tree branches. I liked to hold the sap icicle ('sapcicle') in my mitten and suck on it. Of course, best of all would be the maple syrup, but that came later, after much more work.

First we had to gather the sap. My sister and I helped to empty the cans of sap into a larger pail. We carefully picked out twigs and moths that had fallen into the cans, which lacked covers. (Years later I helped in a sugaring operation in Vermont, and saw the metal coverings that slid over real sap buckets, but at home in Danvers we were simply using available cans and pails -- not special equipment.)

My parents used old bricks to build an outdoor fireplace within the foundation of the former mansion overlooking Locust Lawn. The mansion had been torn down in 1944. Huge granite cornerstones and sections of foundation walls remained, providing shelter from the wind. A stairway of granite steps led from the ground level down into the east end of the foundation. That's where we brought the pails of sap.   My mother set a large rectangular metal pan on top of the brick fire pit.  She poured sap into the shallow pan and waited for it to heat to boiling.

Tending the fire in that outdoor stove was a big part of the operation. We had to gather lots of wood. "Go get the dead wood -- the grey, not the green, so it won't get too smoky," she'd say to neighborhood children who came to watch and help. There was always some smoke, of course, and it often blew right into our faces as we stood watching the hot sap. The trick was to move to the other side of the pan, away from the smoke and steam. Shifts in air currents frequently changed where the smoke rose, so we'd move back and forth, trying to protect our eyes from the sting of too much smoke. I don't think we children stayed there very long. The job of stirring the sap while it boiled down to syrup was really my mother's job. She had the patience for it, and knew just how long to keep the process going.  It took hours! The hot liquid had to get to a certain consistency. To test, she would lift the stirring spoon above the pan and watch how drops formed and moved along the edge of that spoon.  The slower the drops, the thicker the liquid, and the closer it was to real maple syrup.

I remember fondly the sweet smells of boiling sap and wood smoke, and of course the sweet taste of the syrup we ate on our waffles and pancakes. My father even liked to pour maple syrup on vanilla ice cream! We never used store-bought cane-based syrup; it didn't taste right. Some of my parents' friends in New Hampshire and Vermont also made maple syrup and gave us beautifully packaged cans, so we always had a bountiful supply. Delicious!