In March, the pact of winter begins to weaken, it is no longer a treaty that anyone or anything cares to bind. Sometimes in the morning you hear that the birds have returned – at least the bravest ones, and on a hot day in March you see buds in the tips of the trees and you hear the collective sigh of humanity riding the wind of the northeast.
In March, we are done with winter, even if winter is not done with us.
Sugar season has started just about now, the sap is flowing and the first sign of something sweet has appeared, as if winter is trying to show us that it’s not so bad. Maple syrup is proof that anything good can come from a season that’s so proud to be a bully.
The best syrup I’ve ever had comes from a plot my husband owns with friends near Cooperstown. They tap the maple trees there and every year they increase their yield of syrup. They have built something like a sugar shack and they stand outside every March for a weekend or two, boiling the sap.
If you ever wonder why syrup is so expensive, consider this little fact: the ratio of sap to syrup for sugar maple is 40 to 1. This means that if you want a gallon of syrup, you better have forty gallons of sap to boil. down. And that means you better have a lot of trees to exploit. So the next time you open that pitcher of syrup, I want you to think about all the time, effort, patience, and love that has gone into this sticky thing. Yesterday my grandson poured half a gallon over his waffle and left the table with a half cup full of syrup swimming on his plate. He should have gone to family jail for that, and I’m not kidding. If it hadn’t been for the drops of butter floating in the syrup, I would have thought to put it back in the pitcher. It’s a crime against humanity, there. You won’t waste Cooperstown syrup.
It turns out that solitary maples are the best trees to tap. Not the maple trees piled up in the woods vying for resources, but that beautiful maple tree that stands on its own in your garden – it’s your man. Their sap is more abundant and much sweeter, and why not? It’s like you’re a conscripted tree, with your own land, no one to disturb you, living your life on your own terms – a true one percenter, hogging all nearby resources, like the only fat pig on a farm , or a wealthy man on his generous estate outside the city.
These free-growing trees are capable of producing half a gallon of syrup in one season (15 to 20 gallons of sap), whereas trees growing in a forest setting typically produce about a liter of syrup (about 10 gallons of sap) . In addition to greater sap volume and smoothness, free-growing trees are easier to work with because they are more accessible.
What I love about farming is that it requires wisdom to be good, and since wisdom is hard to come by these days, not everyone can tap a maple tree or grow a eggplant. You need to know when to turn on that faucet, usually in early spring when daytime temperatures rise above freezing while nighttime temperatures drop below freezing. The exact time depends on the altitude and location of your trees and your area. In Pennsylvania and parts of southern New York, like us, the first sap flow traditionally takes place from mid-February to late February. In northern regions and at higher elevations, the season often begins in early to mid-March. The sap usually flows for 4-6 weeks or as long as the freezing nights and hot days continue.
My favorite sugar spot is Vermont, where some of the old syrup producers have ties to our country’s founding fathers. They have been passing down land and secrets for generations and they are old school. They wear overalls and hats with earmuffs, have the big Yankee accents, and walk through the woods in their LL Bean boots. I know two of these producers and they just retired last year after 60 years of making syrup. Their grandsons run the place now, and they have their laptops on the farm and they’re looking at charts and graphs and they’re going to make it a Millennial operation if that’s the last thing they do. It will be a place made famous by social media and pretentious photos on Instagram.
I’m going to miss thinking about those old brothers walking through the woods in the early spring. They’re the last of the greats up there in New England. They told me the sugar should be kept wild and pure. It is the wisdom that comes from doing something. You cannot fake authenticity. If you try, it will show in every bite or in the puddle of syrup swimming on your grandson’s plate.
Real people make real good syrup. This will never change.