At first glance, there are many drawbacks to growing up in the wilds of New England. For one thing, the weather leaves something to be desired. Then there’s the mass of dour-faced, eternally pessimistic inhabitants and the undercurrent of puritanical repression. Regardless, my hometown in Berkshires is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places in the country, blizzards and heat waves be damned.
Perhaps the most treasured of my Yankee childhood memories was the annual trip to the local maple sugar farm, a ramshackle series of clapboard structures scattered amid the deep woods. A hayride with draft horses was our usual mode of transportation. On a post snow morning, the trees became graphic black bark holding blinding white snow in their boughs, a Rockwell painting come to life.
The process of making maple syrup is an age-old calling, passed on by Native Americans to settlers in the early days of European colonization. For many years, the use of maple syrup and sugar was isolated to a small group of consumers. It wasn’t until 1764, when Great Britain passed the Sugar Act, imposing high tariffs on imported sugar, that maple sweeteners became more widely popular. Around the time of the American Civil War, just as sap-collectors were honing their methods, refining cane sugar began to replace it as the sweetener of choice. Traditions remained, however, and to this day many backwoods collectors continue the process of gathering sap and making sugar cakes or syrup to sweeten their foods.
Maple syrup is still made in much the same way it has been since early colonial days. First, the sap is extracted using a simple metal spout shoved into the tree trunk with a pail hung beneath to catch the sticky treasure. It is then transported to the “sugar shack” (usually a structure with vents to allow steam to escape). In the old days, this structure housed a giant kettle heated by a roaring fire. Raw sap was boiled down to thick syrup. Today, small producers attach their taps to steel or rubber hoses and use plastic bags in place of buckets. Larger modernized production employs an evaporator, a long shallow partitioned firebox that allows the raw sap to release most of its water as steam, leaving the syrup behind, which is then graded on its color, ranging from a deep brown to translucent amber. The darker the syrup, the more woody and maple-y it’s flavor. Although the implements may have changed somewhat, magic still remains in the thick, sticky substance that is ultimately transformed into something extraordinarily delicious.
For many people, maple syrup remains a quaint fringe product meant for pancake houses and waffle-makers. Some know it only as a component of fad diets like the Master Cleanse. Others who have embraced organic and natural foods have given it a bit of a renaissance. Even so, I understand why it remains somewhat out of reach and large producers seem resistant to promoting it. It can only be made in the Northeastern region of North America and in early spring, before the heat of the season has turned the sap bitter. Perhaps the seasonal aspect of limited availability is what that makes it instantly nostalgic and comforting to so many New Englanders like me. Syrup was the cold air biting my cheeks, my breath clouding the air, the clop of horse hooves on the trail, and the sweet, cathartic caramel smell of boiling sap in the brittle air.