13 March 2013

Maple Water, Eh?

In the northeast, the sap is running...

L'eau de l'érable (maple water)
The nectar of maples (with the best said to come from the sugar maple - Acer saccharum),
maple water is the result of residual starches developed during a growing season. These
starches are retained over-winter in tree roots and stem tissues, and diluted by water
released as the trees respond to warming temperatures in the spring. As water in the tree
tissue warms, it expands, causing pressure to develop, and the "maple water"to flow.

Historically , indigenous tribes and eventually colonists, too, reduced this sweetened water
by heating it.* Thereby concentrating the sugars, they were able to make numerous
foodstuffs, many of which are still enjoyed today .

Sirop d'érable (maple syrup)
Indigenous cultures in eastern North America harvested and reduced maple water long before
European contact. Over time, traditional methods of tapping trees (see image above) gave way to more efficient systems designed to deliver maple water directly to the sugar shack, where it is boiled down and concentrated into syrup.


  • Reducing sap to produce maple syrup is one of a select few still-extant agricultural processes indigenous to North America. 
  • It is said Québec is the largest exporter of maple syrup in the world, a great deal of which goes to Japan.

Cabane à sucre (sugar shack)
There are many of these in the province, and most are attrapes touristes (tourist traps), which serve a meal of so-called traditional regional dishes, have a little taxidermy museum of local
wildlife, and present a display museum which explains historic and contemporary methods for making syrup.

We recently went to one - a cabane isn't something you go to multiple times in a season, but it was interesting, and nice to spend an evening outside the city . The highlight is the syrup itself. It is served with, in, and on dinner, and is a different sort than we are accustomed to in the West. It is refined to an amber hue, golden and nearly clear. The flavor is more subtle than the
dark syrup with which I was raised; an intensity which has a more subtle flavor, and tastes
absolutely fantastic!

Tire sur la neige (toffee on the snow)
It is a traditional Québec winter carnival treat. Locally -harvested pure maple syrup is distilled into toffee and ladled onto snow. As the toffee cools, it is rolled onto a stick -the trick is to capture lots of snow crystals into the toffee. Arguably one of the finest tasting toffees, the flavor of maple toffee is not overwhelmingly "maple," but rather mild and honey-sweet. Rolling toffee reminds me of being a young girl reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's book about life in the Wisconsin woods, Little House in the Big Woods.  Click here to read my recent QCT article about how to make your own toffee on the snow.

*Try this at home!
In the East:
  • Check out various venues such as a local sugar shack.
  • Go to a carnival and try tire sur le neige!
  • Purchase locally produced syrup, direct from a producer you know.

(Almost) Anywhere:

  • Tap a maple tree near you. Although the highest grades of maple syrup are drawn from sugar, black, or red maples, it can be made from many different types of maples.
  • The process for tapping and "boiling off" is the same - read up on it, and try it for yourself. The fundamentals have not changed much in the past several hundred years.
  • Since complicated high-tech equipment isn't necessary, this is a great spring home-scale project.
  • Be sure to tap trees you have permission to access, and that you know aren't treated by chemicals.
  • This works! I've been the happy recipient of jars of syrup produced from Norway maples growing in Missoula, MT. Note: sugar maples do not naturally or commonly grow in MT.


JB said...

I’ve heard about tapping the trees and collecting the Maple – apparently you can thin it quite a bit – and that it’s pretty good. I’d love to try tapping a tree and seeing what it tastes like – home-grown style.

M said...

Le comble du raffinement serait de planter un érable à sucre dans son jardin, et d'attendre suffisamment longtemps avant d'y planter un robinet pour avoir sa propre production de sirop d'érable en ville. Évidemment, ça demande un brin de patience, et résulte en une production de sirop sur une vie entière qui frise le zéro pointé (forcément, avec une productivité sur le long terme proche du néant). Mais bon, rien ne remplace le plaisir de faire ce genre de choses soi-même, ce petit supplément d'âme qui rend le sirop un peu plus sucré.

Ceci étant dit, les fainéants comme moi préfèreront encore un peu le réseau de tubes en plastique bleu qui quadrille les érablières à l'arrivée du printemps (il faudrait une photo à l'appui !), à environ un mètre de hauteur, afin de transporter sans le moindre effort le précieux nectar de centaines d'érables vers la cabane à sucre la plus proche... C'est toujours surprenant pour le randonneur de passage, à y perdre le nord !


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