18 April 2009

Love shack, baby: Maple Syrup

A few weeks ago I mentioned how I...umm...encouraged my cold to return. Some of you asked me how one does that (the reasons, I hope, are so you won't do the same...as opposed to taking glee in my...well, "stupidity" is an awfully harsh word for it).

As some of you know, I've dipped my toe back into fetid waters known as "dating."

I've never been "good" at it and really didn't know what to expect. Which is why, as incredulous as it sounds, in September I actually met a very dear, sweet man who not only interested me, but he seems to have taken an interest in me. We had a lovely time together, but long story short, his life imploded a few weeks ago and he asked for time to deal with what The Fates dropped on him. We have left each other messages and spoken to one another in these few weeks, but still...it's a little bruising...at times it feels more than a little bruising.

Of my many wonderful friends is a phenomenal woman. I've mentioned her family before--remember
Baby Bella's ice cream extravaganza? This is mummy of Baby Bella. The family was in what turned out to be the first couple weeks of an extraordinary six week boiling season, and she invited me up to her sugar shack to have a tramp through the woods, take in the heady aromas of boiling maple sap, clear my head and have a good think about life, the universe and everything.

The sugarbush is about an hour north-ish of here, and although she suggested I wear my woolies...Well, I didn't wear enough of them and my cold revisited for (thankfully) a short duration.

Really, it's a magical little place--a virgin maple bush where the summer sees it carpeted with green, including ramps and wild trilliums. That day there were no wildflowers or onions, but the remnants of winter were still on the ground, but you could smell the cedar smoke in the air and see the plumes of steam and smoke ascend above the tree tops. It's quiet--far enough from larger towns to remind you of what tranquility really is.

Inside the sugar shack are whorls of maple and cedar-scented steam. Above a three-channel evaporator, heated by cedar wood fresh sap is poured into the beast at one end, and boils, bubbles and makes patterns vaguely reminiscent of satellite images of great water-born storms. I was able to capture a very short (five-ish second) video of it...really, it was quite like those dances where lasers illuminated the swirling wind currents evidenced by dry ice fog (gosh...am I dating myself with that reference)?

I helped bottle about two gallons of syrup (and I have a quart of the special Jasmine bottling, as I'm calling it--yes, it's the bestest syrup ever), we sat in the little cabin next to the sugar shack (no: no hydro or water their either, but there is a wood stove which kept things mighty warm) sipping warm, fresh syrup from china teacups while discussing the recent turn in my life. Baby Bella's grandfather believes maple syrup can cure anything...and for a few hours that day, I certainly felt a lot better.

The sugar shack was built in the late 1800s by one my friend's ancestors and the property has stayed in the family throughout (except for a few years). Back in its family's hands, it took a few years to recover from the logging its temporary owners indulged in, with last year being the first year the remaining trees started giving sap. This year they truly made a go of it.

The nights have to be below freezing and the days just above to get the sap flowing from spiles into buckets. She and her family then collect the clear, sweet liquid by hand (none of that intravenous-like rubber tubing you see at some larger sugar bushes) and then is poured into a century's old evaporator. The sugar shack itself is quite rustic--no electricity, phone or running water (there's an outdoor privvy, when needs must)--when they are in the throes of "midnight boils", they work by candlelight wrapped in old quilts. Thus far, she and her family have produced more than 40 gallons of syrup. (update: by season's end they produced more than 50 gallons of syrup)

What I think makes it special--well, apart from it being made by friends are a couple of things. The first is how they fire the evaporator. Instead fuelling the fires with maple or old tires (as some producers do), they use cedar which imparts a bit of its flavour in the syrup. The other thing is, this is a way of life which is slowly disappearing from the area. These small family sugar bushes are dwindling, making way for what someone somewhere designated as "progress," leaving larger, more corporate producers to streamline procedures and do what corporate types do to things that are just simply...good. You can read more about
sustainability and maple syrup production here.

My friend's family is continuing to make maple syrup in the way it was done more than a century ago, as part of the farm enterprise. Back then sugar was an imported expense and maple syrup, in its various strenghts was a local and affordable natural sweetner that could last a year or longer.

They've decided to bottle syrups highlighting the seasonal variances of the sap, including an unusual "Sharp Frost Amber": an especially caramelly syrup which followed a sharp freeze. Rather than homogenizing syrup in vats (by mixing sap harvests from several days) - to reduce the daily and seasonal variations - they've specially preserved the individual characteristics of the batches as the season progressed.

If you're interested in getting some syrup, let me know (the email address is on the side) and I'll pass on your request, they are selling it at reasonable prices ($10 for 500ml).

Each bottle comes with one of four family recipes--I've selected one to prepare and share with you.

Grandpa's Johnnycake
recipe courtesy Kim Love
1 egg

7/8c (220ml) milk
1tsp vanilla
5Tbps (75ml) melted butter
1/3c (65g) brown sugar
1c (130g flour
1 Tbsp (heaping) baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1c (160g) cornmeal

Preheat oven to 200C/400F. Butter a brownie pan (20cmx20cm/8"x8") or a cast iron pan of a similar proportion.

Lightly whisk together the egg, milk, vanilla and melted butter. Stir in the brown sugar.

Sift together the remaining ingredients. Form a well, so you have a hollow that's protected by a mountain range of the cornmeal-flour mixture. pour in the wet mixture and mix until just combined. uyour wet ingredients well.

Pour into prepared pan and bake for 20-25 minutes, or until an inserted skewer comes out clean and the top is slightly dappled with brown.

Serve hot with butter and maple syrup.

"This is Grandpa Love’s favourite way to enjoy fresh maple syrup."


Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

Unlike the Rhode Island johnnycake (more like a lifeless pancake), your johnnycake looks fluffy and delicious. We have a sugaring house not far from here, and it's wonderful to watch them making the syrup. (Are you a Hitchhiker's Guide fan, by any chance? Caught the reference there.)

Anonymous said...

mmm I love Johnnycake it is the perfect maple syrup food! Your description of the sugar shack brings back my memories of growing up in New England...

Kim said...

Oh, what a lovely little photo tour through the maple syrup experience! Thanks so much for taking the photos, Jasmine; we were so ridiculously busy that we neglected to get any photos ourselves. We just polished off some pancakes this morning - after a long day yesterday in the bush, cleaning up all the equipment for the season. We finished with 53 gallons of syrup from 226 taps. Uncle Lavern had to show us "kids" how to close up for the season. Sad to see it end, but I can already see the wild leeks poking up, so we'll be back in the bush for gourmet foraging soon!

Naomi Devlin said...

What a gorgeously written post. I have the most amazing image of that beautiful shingle shack with the scent of maple syrup in the steamy air and you making 1980's dance moves in the middle of it all wrapped in a quilt. I may have mixed up some of those passages in my head, but there it is.

I hope the love thing resolves itself, these things usually happen for a reason no?

x x x

NKP said...

Our trip to a small sugar maple farm was one of our family favourite's. Real maple syrup is a treasure. What a great experience.
I hope you find all the love and tenderness that you deserve.

Lisa said...

Indeed a gorgeously written post... oh, the swirling hot sweetness of maple syrup steam sounds like comfort unlike any other. Wish I could ask for a tin of syrup, but Africa is a little far for it to travel...

Anonymous said...

Oh my goodness - we used to have property in Eastern Ontario and *loved* going to the "sugaring shack" as my grandparents called it and working a wee bit - basically helping check the maple tree taps - when I was a wee one (the property sold when I was about 9 years old).

The family who cared for these trees - and the ones on neighboring properties owned by vacation-oriented Americans - stuck very strictly to traditional means and methods and while not unpleasant about other methods (at least around me!), they were absolutely determined that *their* maple products would *never* see the inside of a commercial process. Even then, that seemed like the right thing to do - as a young, young kid.

Now comes the big question - this post was written in 2009, and I am hoping against hope this wonderful syrup-makers might still be making syrup - and in this way! (And, what is the traditional name for a person who oversees or works in the traditional process of making maple syrup? I couldn't figure that out!).

Please, please advise. This sounds even better than my memories of childhood!

Anonymous said...

Oh gosh - the post I wrote a moment ago - I am not without a name! Please call me Laura, and my address is HSTRIANLaura at gmail dot com.

Thanks - and so sorry for clicking on "'really did I just do that?' for tired people typing in the middle of the night..."



jasmine said...

Hi Laura

Thanks for the notes! Yes, they're still making maple syrup. I'll forward your email to them :)