Because I come from a northern region well known for its maple syrup production, nothing represents spring fever more than packing up the kids from the clan and heading off to a sugar shack to stock up a few gallons of maple syrup for the year to come. This is an authentic family tradition that’s dear to many New Englanders and Canadians because it’s always been part of their history. After years of experimenting in my kitchen, maple products have become a staple and now replace white sugar in most of my recipes because this nutritious and natural bounty tastes great and also contains interesting compounds, such as iron, calcium, potassium and some beneficial phytochemicals. Of course, I would not miss for all the gold in the world the sturdy, traditional meal that’s linked to any yearly visit to the sugar shack: maple syrup omelette, maple bacon served with buns in syrup, maple syrup baked beans, maple sugar cake and maple toffee served hot on snow. Yummy and highly energetic! After such excesses, no question: you need a couple hours of paddling to wash it down!
So when I was looking for something fun and slightly unusual to talk about for my spring-has-sprung food column, it wasn’t snap peas that came to my mind…
An authentic and ancient North American product
Needless to say maple syrup and all its derivatives (like maple sugar, maple toffee, maple butter, and the like) is one the most authentic North American products that one can think of. And it also easily becomes an excellent paddling companion: it keeps indefinitely in all sorts of storage conditions without spoiling, it’s easy to cook with and it’s also extremely versatile when it comes to creating fabulous and simple camp or picnic recipes, from appetizers to desserts. It’s also to die for eaten just as is, especially maple sugar. Maple products are such a true addiction and tradition in my family that I cannot wait to share this passion with you, readers, especially now that they are easy enough to find almost everywhere in the world, thanks to a better marketing strategy from producers. It can be considered luxury fare for some, but not more so than chocolate or a bottle of wine…
The history of maple sap collecting has deep roots in Northern American regions such as Quebec Province (the biggest producer in the world), Vermont (second biggest), Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Ontario. It is also one of the only natural products that can be collected during the cold season. Although different maple trees can produce maple sap that’s edible, it’s the sugar maple that is used for commercial purposes because of the sap’s concentration of sugar, which can be as high as 6 %. But on average, maple sap contains 2 % sugar when it’s collected. And contrary to the history of white sugar on this continent, that’s linked to violence, blood baths and slavery, maple syrup is not linked to multimillionaire barons and corporations who fill up their pockets with profits without giving anything back in return. And nutritionally speaking it’s a much better choice too.
The Mythology behind Maple syrup
It’s no surprise that First Nations people first discovered the energetic and nutritional value of maple water once it’s boiled to obtain syrup. Using their tomahawk to make a tap hole, they attached a wood shaving on the bottom in order to direct the maple sap towards a bark recipient. Then they would boil the sap in clay pots for hours to obtain maple syrup. Of course, just as with cranberries, beans, corn or squash, Aboriginal people were kind enough to teach their science to white settlers when they first arrived in New France with Champlain in the early 17th century and to the Pilgrims who got off the Mayflower in Massachusetts a little later on.
There’s a nice legend associated with it that’s in the Algonquian mythology. In the beginning, Nokomis (Mother Earth) was the first to tap holes in maple trees to collect maple syrup directly, until her grandson Manabush told her that men would become lazy if they could collect this exquisite sugar so easily without any work. He first tried to convince his grandmother that men should work to obtain it by cutting wood, starting fire and staying up all night to boil the maple sap and watch it turn into syrup and sugar. But fearing his grand-mother would not take action, he himself climbed to the top of a maple tree with a bucket of water, pouring it inside the tree to dissolve its sugar concentration. Ever since, according to that legend, men have to work hard to obtain maple syrup.
The annual rite of spring
That’s how for the first white settlers in Eastern North America “running” from one maple tree to another became an important part of daily life during the brief collecting season, which is usually 6 weeks long. It starts in early March and runs until mid-April in most producing regions. Just like in the old days, collecting maple sap to turn it into syrup and sugar is still a period of joy for many people because it is associated with the end of winter and the beginning of a much easier time for everyone.
There are strict rules for maple producers to collect maple sap in the spring. Trees must be 12 inches in diameter (30-40 years of age) before holes can be drilled in their trunk to collect their water and less than 10 % of the sugar content of the tree can be extracted. Every year the hole must be placed on another part of the maple. In the old days, sap dribbled into covered buckets, but today, most sugar shacks are equipped with sophisticated plastic tubing. The maple water follows the tubing from tree to tree directly into a storage tank, thanks to a vacuum pump. Every spout is connected to this highly effective system and the gathering process is automatically activated when temperatures rises enough for the sap to flow.
As is true for any natural production, the taste of maple syrup or sugar will vary according to the region and soil it comes from and the time of the season it’s produced. On average, a maple tree will yield 30 to 50 gallons of maple sap each year, which will translate into a little more than one gallon of maple syrup. This explains why it’s a bit expensive, at around 20 dollars (US) a gallon. In Vermont alone, there are around 2 million tapped maples. But Quebec remains the runaway leader, with 95 % of Canadian production, which accounts for 85 % of all of the planets’. Quebec can count on 7000 maple syrup producers who sell 86 million pounds every year to 30 countries. The rest comes from Vermont and a few north eastern States, such as Maine, New York, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Ohio.
How to store and use maple products during a paddling trip
Use small plastic containers with an air-tight cover either for maple syrup or maple sugar. It can keep for a month without spoiling. Don’t worry if some crystals form in the maple syrup after the can has been opened: they’re part of the evaporation process. Although maple syrup is fabulous on pancakes and French toasts, you can use it in many recipes to bring a bit of zest and personality. It makes excellent dressings, marinades and sauces for meat, poultry, tofu or fish. Mix it with soy sauce, ginger, sesame oil and garlic and add it to sautéed vegetables on rice for a quick Asian feast.
Maple syrup is a natural ally for most bean recipes, such as orange or green lentils or white beans. Serve either in a quick ragout or in a bean salad. It’s an excellent complement to a carrot, onion, zucchini or red pepper soup: just add a few tablespoons before serving or caramelize your vegetables in it with a bit of butter or oil before adding some broth. When you cook meat, game or fish in a pan, deglaze it with a bit of maple syrup: it’s the easiest way to help caramelize and a perfect base for a sauce.
Now, how much syrup you pour in the pan depends on how sweet you wish your dish to be. 4-6 tbsp for 4 people won’t provide a sweet taste; rather a different personality. You can easily double this quantity if you like something a bit sweeter. Maple syrup is also delicious as a sugar replacement for your loaves and cakes recipes: just remove one third of the liquid content. Fruits laced with maple syrup or sprinkled with maple sugar will become part of a fabulous breakfast (try it with yogurt or granola) or dessert. Poach your morning eggs in a bit of maple syrup instead of frying them for another delicious and nutritious treat. Chunks of hard maple sugar are a good treat when you paddle and need a quick and short burst of energy, especially in rough conditions.
Maple products are an almost perfect energizer for paddlers: great tasting and easily handled and stored. And if you’re lucky enough to paddle in the Great Northeast in the fall, the burst of colors of the majestic maple forests will remind you of nature’s true bounty.