Sweet dreams of maple syrup

Canada’s favourite condiment is easy to make, if you have the perfect weather and lots and lots of patience

Sat, Apr 19, 2014, 01:00

The sun is shining, the wind is calm and it’s a pleasant six degrees in Eganville, Ontario. After a long brutally cold winter, spring is almost upon us. Although there is still snow on the ground, the trees are coming out of their dormant state, which means only one thing: it’s maple syrup season.

Here in the valley, where you can’t walk five feet without stumbling into a maple tree, it seems every second person is making syrup at this time of year.

I’ve been in Canada for years but am still in awe at the sight of 100,000 maple trees in the blazing colours of autumn. And when I see the leaves turn in “the Fall”, my thoughts turn to spring, when the sap starts to run.

I’d never tasted maple syrup until I came here. Now, though, on Pancake Tuesday, I no longer make crepes with lemon and sugar. I make thick pancakes and waffles and drown them in syrup.

Maple syrup is to Canadians what tea is to the Irish. When Canada ditched the Union flag in the 1960s and made a new official one, the maple leaf was adopted as a symbol of national unity.

Making syrup is both an art and a science. It’s labour-intensive and needs perfect weather conditions. A spigot (a small plug) is drilled about an inch and a half into the bark to collect the sap, which is where the “sapwood” is.

“You don’t want to drill too far into the tree. It doesn’t draw water on the inside. It draws on the outside,” says Randy Schauer, who makes maple syrup from the trees on his land.

The daytime temperature needs to be five degrees above or more, but it has to get to five below at night (but not much colder than that), and if it’s windy, the sap doesn’t run. It needs to be sunny. Rain dampens everything and the sap doesn’t run as well.

I’m sweating inside Schauer’s “sugar shack”, a little shed on his property he built 20 years ago and that he and his family use every year to turn tree sap into sweet maple syrup.

The fire has been going since five o’clock this morning. I’ve stopped counting the cedar logs we’re burning, but it’s a lot. On top of the giant stove sits an enormous steel pan filled with boiling sap collected from the maple trees that surround us.

“That’s about 100 years old, that pan,” Schauer tells me. “Look at it, see how thick it is. That could have come from the same lot you guys used to build the Titanic .”

There are about 30 maples on his 300- acre property and each has two spigots, the sap running off through tubes into plastic drums on the ground. He estimates that 240 litres of sap will yield about two gallons of syrup.

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