The Sweet Taste of Springtime

We may be getting a foot and a half of snow today, but nevertheless, it’s springtime in the mountains … and that means the days of ‘Maple Madness’ have arrived. As the days get longer and the sap continues to flow, old-fashioned buckets (as well as the more modern plastic tubing) adorn the New England trunks of our mighty maple trees. Join Mountain Farmgirl Cathi Belcher as she talks about this sweet seasonal ritual, tells you how you can do it yourself on a small scale with your kids (you don’t need fancy equipment), and shares some of her favorite maple recipes.

Looks can be deceiving, but don’t be fooled … it only appears to be winter out there! The three feet of snow that are still under my snowshoes are hiding Nature’s Great Awakening for a just a short while longer. Officially, spring has sprung, if mostly only on our calendars; but even if we hadn’t moved the clocks ahead recently, the days have been getting noticeably longer for some time now. For a sweet New England sign of spring, however, we need only look to the trees for verification! Maples everywhere –surely one of my favorite of all trees – are coming to life as their sap rises daily, along with the mercury on our thermometers. Helped along by the March winds, it happens every year just like clockwork. I've really enjoyed Nicole's maple sugaring blogs. All of us New Englanders get our blood boiling right about now, antsy to start boiling sap. My version here has a slightly different twist ...a simple, down-home focus. Hopefully when you see how easy it can be on a small scale with everyday equipment, you'll give it a try at home with your family.

One of my favorite times of year, Spring is a time of hope and renewal for all of us … and it comes just in time to relieve us of cabin fever and those end-of-winter blahs. Did anyone take my advice last time and dig deeply into their ‘roots’, greens and sprouts for an end-of-winter pick me up?  Well, here’s another surefire tonic for whatever ails you: Maple Syrup, in all of its different forms and glorious sweetness. Get ready for an infusion of the liquid gold in your veins that will make your cheeks glow and your heart sing! Come for a walk with me to my woodlot, where we’re about to tap some trees!
While we’re trekking, let me tell you about what a wonderful ritual this can be, especially if you have small children at home. When mine were young, our annual pilgrimage to the woods to tap trees was a much-anticipated event. Because we never did it commercially (we just made enough for ourselves and for family gifts), we were able to make our own maple spiles, the taps that go into the trunk of the tree. Money was tight for us, and this kept our equipment costs down to a bare minimum while giving our kids a meaningful project.
If you’re game, here’s what we did to make our own spiles:
Long before syrup season arrived, we would go out along the roadsides, looking for just the right type of wood, our favorite was staghorn sumac. Don’t worry, this is not poison sumac I’m talking about; it’s the kind that produces those fuzzy red stalks (which incidentally, are GREAT for making a Native American beverage that tastes like a cross between lemonade and iced tea … but that is a secret to be shared in another season). One way to identify them this time of year is to look for the remnants of that red fruit on the tips of the branches. Once you’ve identified where they are, you’ll know where to find them next year!  I like to use staghorn sumac because the trunks and branches are just the right diameter for making spiles, and the pith (the inside center part of the woody stem or trunk), is very soft and spongy and easily removed. I cut long branches out in the field, and later cut them down to size (into pieces about 8” long) back home around the evening fire. We usually make about 4 dozen or so.  Using something long and sharp (I use a brazing rod but a metal coat hanger would probably work, too), we would push the metal through the pith, boring it out until we had a long cylindrical channel hollowed out down the entire length of our handmade maple spiles; then we’d whittle down one end a bit to better fit the hole. Voila … we are ready to tap!
You’ll know when conditions are favorable and the sap starts running; after a while it becomes instinctive. But if you’re new to all this, be on the lookout for warm sunny days and cold, frosty nights in late winter or early spring. Blustery winds also kick into play this time of year, helping to get the trees’ lifeblood flowing. In my neck of the woods a good sap run can begin as early as February or as late as the end of March; it all depends on the weather. The “run” for northern locations generally starts later, southern ones earlier, although this can change from year to year depending on weather conditions. One day you’ll begin to notice icicles hanging from a few broken branches, that’s the sap leaking out and then freezing during the night.  Taste it; it will be mildly sweet, though nothing like the syrupy sweetness of  finished syrup. It takes about 30-50 gallons of sap to produce 1 gallon of syrup, as sap is mostly water, and when most of it has been boiled away, the thick, sweet tasting syrup remains. But wait … I’m getting ahead of myself here!!
First things first. Short of building an honest-to-goodness sugar house, here are the other basic materials we’ll need to get started:
• Spiles. Check! We’ve already made them.
• Buckets: These days I use  traditional metal sap buckets with covers to keep out dirt, debris and rain, but you can use just about any sort of container you have on hand. I used to use food grade plastic buckets with handles, the kind that grains come in. I’ve also used pots and pans or heavy duty plastic bags made for the purpose.
• Bucket covers: If improvising, metal roofing flashing makes a good cover, but really, anything clean will work.
• A portable drill or traditional brace and bit for drilling holes in the trees, and a hammer to pound in the spiles. Choose a drill bit that is roughly the same size as your spiles.
• A place to boil the sap. My first year we started small, and I did this in the house on my kitchen stove. While this is a great way to humidify your house during a very ‘dry’ time of year, I don’t recommend it, as it also leaves a very sticky residue on everything. An outdoor campfire pit can be used with a pot hanging from a tripod, but my favorite way is to build a make shift evaporator stove, using cement blocks on two sides with a heavy duty grate over the top. The fire gets built between the blocks, and wood can be added from either end.
• Heavy metal pans for boiling sap. I recommend at least two; one for the first boiling, and one for finishing off.
• A ready source of fuel in the form of firewood, brush, scrap wood, etc. (If using leftover construction materials, it goes without saying that you never burn pressure treated wood or in this case, even wood that has been painted.

Okay … we’re almost ready! Do you know which trees you are going to tap? Yes, maples of course, but have you identified them and do you know exactly which ones you’ll be tapping? That’s the next step. You’ll want them to be in fairly close proximity to your evaporator for ease in moving the heavy, sap filled buckets. The trees you pick should be at least a foot in diameter at breast height. My first year, I identified them before the leaves fell off in the fall and put surveyors tape around the trunks to make it easier to get started.
Once you’ve chosen your trees, you can start drilling the holes and putting in the spiles. Drill the holes with a slight upward slant on the southern side of the tree trunks, about 4' from the ground. Each tree can accept several spiles. Be sure to drive them adjacent to one another on a horizontal axis, not above or below each other. (By the way, the ‘south’ side is generally the ‘sunny side’, and if you tap the wrong side of a tree, it’s not the end of the world, but you’ll get MUCH more sap from the warmer side!). You can even do an interesting experiment by drilling holes on each side of the tree.  On a sunny afternoon, the southers tap will be flowing like a faucet, while the tap on the other side will barely drip!  I like to make a shallow notch on my homemade sumac spiles on which to hang the buckets. Don’t cut too deeply … you don’t want to cut into the channel you’ve bored out on the inside. Cover the buckets to keep any insects or debris out, and move on to the next tree until you’re done. Then it’s time to wait for Mother Nature to turn on the faucets!  Some days, when conditions are perfect, the sap will flow so fast you may need to dump the buckets once or twice a day; other days you’ll just get a few drops. It depends on the weather and temperature, last year’s rainfall, and the individual tree. Some trees are real givers, but it can also vary from year to year.
The first run of sap is usually the best as far as taste, color and grade is concerned, but if you’re not doing this as a commercial venture (where maple sugaring is down to an exact science and has almost as many different grades and qualities as wine), I have to say that EVERY drop of it is totally delicious … and when you’re done, it will be more precious to you than gold!  (This was true even of my worst batch ever, which we lovingly dubbed “Grade Z Black Midnight” for the obvious reason that it was on the totally opposite end of the spectrum from “Grade A Light Amber”!). It’s true that in general the rule of thumb is “Lighter is Better” but believe me, all homemade syrup is awesome if you’ve made it yourself!
But back to work! In a small scale operation, I don’t boil it off every day.  I wait until I have enough to make it worthwhile, and improvise a holding tank, (I use a squeaky clean 40 gallon garbage can or two). That being said, however, it will not keep indefinitely.  Sap begins to sour or ferment after a few days depending on the temperature at which it is kept, so watch it closely, and keep everything very clean. 
Here’s a neat trick I discovered to cut down on boiling time. If it gets very cold at night, many times the top half-inch or so of sap in the buckets may have turned to ice. That’s great!!  I just reach in, pull that off and  throw it away. It’s pretty much just the water part of the sap that freezes anyway, and this is a quick and acceptable way to get rid of it; no need to waste all that fuel to turn it into steam.
So … trees are tapped, conditions are right, sap has been collected … it’s time to boil!  What a fun family time this can be! Get the fire going and a good bed of coals, then lay your evaporator pans on the grate above them. You want shallow flat pans for this purpose with lots of surface area for quicker evaporation. Color is a key to how close you are to the ‘finishing off’ process; so is the look of the foam on top (but this takes a practiced eye). Another way is to use a thermometer; when the sap gets to about 7 degrees above your altitude's boiling point, it has become syrup. If you don’t have a thermometer, you’ll have to eyeball it and use some old-fashioned trial and error. When it coats the back of a wooden spoon it is ready … but taste it to be sure. If you thought it was finished but it turns out to be too watery when cooled, just re-boil it until it’s more to your liking. If there is too much water in the syrup, it could ferment in the jars. Then again, if you boil it too much, it will turn to maple sugar … and believe me, this can happen fast, so keep a watchful eye. Remember when I said that ALL homemade syrup is delicious? Well, I wasn’t being completely truthful there.  The big exception is if you burn it … That’s something that you just can’t fix so just suck it up and start again! (We’ve all been THERE at least once).
While you’re waiting for the syrup ‘to make’, you can test it out on top of snow.  Remember Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Maple Snow? Much later you’ll be enjoying your maple syrup on some homemade ice cream, but you’ll never forget the taste of that very first maple snow cone you had out in the woods … I guarantee it!
I like to process hot syrup in clean pint and quart jars just like I would can my  garden produce. Absolute cleanliness is essential. Make sure the lids seal, then let them cool and store in your pantry or cellar. Maple syrup is delicious on my famous maple bread pudding (see my previous column called “Waste Not, Want Not” for the recipe); on ice cream as I mentioned; in your candied sweet potatoes at Thanksgiving, or as a substitute for sugar in ANY recipe (you’ll just have to cut down on the amount of liquid called for).  Pancakes (of course) are the real reason that Maple Syrup was invented in the first place!! As a “Little House” fan, my children and I tried to make Almanzo Wilder’s ‘light-as-foam’ pancakes, although without quite as much luck as he and his brother claim to have had. Our trick to getting that same texture is to use MaryJanes pancake mix, but I substitute homemade club soda as the liquid. They are not only ‘light as foam’, they are heavenly! But truth be told, even if you make a batch of lead sinkers by mistake, not a person will complain when they are complemented by your homemade maple syrup!

Here’s Almanzo’s  recipe, from The Little House Cookbook, copyright Harper Collins Publishers, Inc. by Barbara M. Walker, illustrated by Garth Williams.
"Then Pa sat down, as they urged him, and lifting the blanket cake on the untouched pile, he slipped from under it a section of the stack of hot, syrupy pancakes. Royal forked a brown slice of ham from the frying pan onto Pa's plate and Almanzo filled his coffee cup.  "You boys certainly live in the lap of luxury," Pa remarked. The pancakes were no ordinary buckwheat pancakes. Almanzo followed his mother's pancake rule and the cakes were light as foam, soaked through with melted brown sugar."

For 2 dozen, 3-inch pancakes, plus 1 cup of sponge, you will need:
Molasses, 2 Tablespoons
Yeast, 1 ounce or 2 small packages
Buckwheat flour, 2 cups
Whole-wheat flour, 1 cup
Baking soda, 1/2 teaspoon
Salt, 1/2 teaspoon
Drippings, 1 Tablesoon
Salt pork, 1/4-pound chunk
Brown sugar, 1/2 cup

The night before (or 8 hours before serving), put 1/2 cup of blood-warm water in a bowl or pitcher, stir in molasses, and crumble yeast on top. When yeast has softened, stir in another 2 cups of tap water and both the flours. Cover with a cloth and let stand at room temperature (under 70 degrees) to make the sponge. Next morning, remove 1 cup of the sponge to a jar as a starter for the next batch. Store in refrigerator. Dissolve baking soda and salt into 1/2 cup of hot water and add drippings. Beat this into the sponge until well mixed. Heat the griddle, greasing it with salt pork. Pour one large test cake to start; use this to cover remaining cakes. Pour each cake 3 to 4 inchest wide. Cook until bubbles form and burst, then turn and cook equally long on other site. As you stack finished cakes on a warm plate, sprinkle each with a little brown sugar. The starter will keep for a number of days in the refrigerator. For your next batch, make the sponge by mixing starter with 2 Tablespoons molasses, 2 cups bloodwarm water, 1 1/2 cups of buckwheat flour, and 1 cup whole-wheat flour. Let stand overnight, then proceed as before, setting aside a new cup before adding final ingredients.

Here in Jackson, NH many of my friends are also firing up their sugar houses this week. ‘Making hay while the sun shines’ applies equally to maple syrup as it does to summer hay! Let me introduce you to a few of them:


Let's end with a bit of history. My interest in Maple Sugaring was originally whetted back in college by Helen and Scott Nearing, who had come in person to my school in Vermont, to share some of their wisdom on the subject. They spoke to us about their experiences there from the 1930‘s – ‘50s, supporting themselves by making Maple Syrup. Their classic “Maple Syrup Book”, is part how-to manual, part biography, and part philosphical and social commentary. I have read and re-read it many times over the years. Yet inspirational as the Nearings may be, there is still no substitution for getting out there yourself, rolling up your sleeves, and being part of the great American spring tradition of ‘maple sugaring’, if only on a tiny scale. Even if you only make enough for garnishing your short stack, it is a Farmgirl experience you will never forget!
Sweet Blessings from the Mountains, my friends. Please share your own sweet experiences with us here; we love to learn from each other. And be sure to check out Suburban Farmgirl Nicole Christensen’s blog as she also taps some trees and makes some maple syrup with her neighbor. Let the good times flow!
Until next time,
Mountain Bounty, Mountain Blessings from
Mountain Farmgirl, Cathi Belcher


By: Brigitte Farmgirl with a heart
On: 04/04/2011 12:13:28
It's been to long since I went out to sugarland! My haunt gave me some sugary water...But I missed the odors...the music...Anyway, I had my grandma recipe for "pépères à l'érable" and with my sister we had our favorite treat! To the next time dear friend...
By: bonnie ellis
On: 04/04/2011 14:49:20
Oh! Oh! I can just taste it now. How lucky you are to have so many maples. We have a few but not enough syrup. But my relatives in Bruce, WI have a sugar house and that maple syrup is divine! Yum, yum; thanks for sharing. Bonnie
By: Heather
On: 04/04/2011 17:17:30
We just finished our first batch of birch syrup!! We ended up with 2 and a half "beer" bottles full. It seems like so much work for so little pay out, but what fun. My kids and my hubby just loved it. The whole family joined in. We are still hoping to get some more. I am already looking forward to next year and trying to expand the operation:) Happy sugaring.--Heather
By: Patty D.
On: 04/05/2011 21:18:11
Love your mountain takes me away in thought to restful places. I LOVE real maple syrup--have told my family to embalm me with it! :)
Keep sharing your joy!
Patty in Washington
By: Nicole Christensen
On: 04/09/2011 15:55:05
Hi Kathy! My little girl is having a friend over for the night, and after seeing your pictures, we are having pancakes for breakfast for sure! You are right, the syrup tastes even better when you've put in the work to make it! Enjoy! Farmgirl Hugs, your fellow blogger, Nicole

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Cathi Belcher

Cathi Belcher,
an old-fashioned farmgirl with a pioneer spirit, lives in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. As a “lifelong learner” in the “Live-Free-or-Die” state, she fiercely values self-reliance, independence, freedom, and fresh mountain air. Married to her childhood sweetheart of 40+ years (a few of them “uphill climbs”), she’s had plenty of time to reinvent herself. From museum curator, restaurant owner, homeschool mom/conference speaker, to post-and-beam house builder and entrepreneur, she’s also a multi-media artist, with an obsession for off-grid living and alternative housing. Cathi owns and operates a 32-room mountain lodge. Her specialty has evolved to include “hermit hospitality” at her rustic cabin in the mountains, where she offers weekend workshops of special interest to women.

“Mountains speak to my soul, and farming is an important part of my heritage. I want to pass on my love of these things to others through my writing. Living in the mountains has its own particular challenges, but I delight in turning them into opportunities from which we can all learn and grow.”

Column content copyright © 2010– Cathi Belcher. All rights reserved.

Mountain Bounty

“Keep close to Nature’s heart ... and break clear away once in awhile to climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods, to wash your spirit clean.”
– John Muir