Here in New England, we don’t need a groundhog to tell us when spring is coming. The only sign we need is the beginning of maple sugaring season.
Every year in late winter, the age-old tradition of extracting sap from sugar maple trees in order to make maple syrup lives on in Massachusetts (March is Maple Month in the Bay State, after all). And, unlike the bottles you may find in the supermarket, no high-fructose corn syrup is required.
“Once you have [real] maple syrup, you can’t go back,” said Susan Baeslack, education and volunteer coordinator at Mass Audubon’s Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary.
Like many of its local maple syrup-making counterparts, the sanctuary in Topsfield is busy this time of year. For more than three decades, it has tapped its maple trees, collected the sap in a bucket, and then boiled the sap until most of the water has evaporated.
What’s left is syrup, which then gets filtered several times and bottled. Sound easy? The catch is that it takes at least 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of sweet, sticky, destined-for-pancakes maple syrup, as sap is 98 percent water.
Making just one gallon is an all-day job.
“It’s a long process,” said Richard Wolniewicz, property manager at Ipswich River. “[But] it’s just a wonderful process.”
The history of maple syrup dates all the way back to when Native Americans in what is now New England discovered that maple sap cooked over an open flame produced a sweet sugar.
When the first European settlers arrived, the locals taught them the maple sugaring process. The early European settlers then added their own technology to the process, boring holes in maple trees and inserting spouts to collect the sap in wooden buckets.
Today, many larger maple-sugaring facilities are using tubing systems, more efficient than the more labor-intensive buckets that the sanctuary still uses. The tubing systems increase the sap yield and remove some of the water prior to boiling.
Although this technology is a great advance for the maple sugaring industry, Ipswich River’s intimate size allows it to retain the bucket system.
As with most things in nature, the maple sap yield varies widely depending on the weather.
“Last year was one of our best seasons,” Baeslack said. “We’re actually still selling syrup from last year.”
Ipswich River begins its maple-sugaring process as early as possible in the late winter months, as the sugar content is higher earlier in the year. According to Wolniewicz — who’s been making maple syrup with the sanctuary for 15 years — the earlier start makes all of the difference in boiling times as well as the syrup’s color. The syrup’s natural maple flavor comes from the malic acid in the trees.
“If you compare it to supermarket syrup . . . there’s just no comparison,” Baeslack said. “It’s a pure, natural product.”
To see the process, Ipswich River holds maple sugaring tours during the short maple-making season (the season as a whole lasts about four to six weeks). The tours will be held on Saturdays and Sundays from March 1 through March 16.
On these one-hour, outdoor guided tours, guests learn how to identify a sugar maple and observe how the syrup is made — from tapping the sap from the trees all the way to watching the sap being boiled down in the sugarhouse.
Tours end with the opportunity to sample the final product, with the added option of indulging in a “sap dog” — a hot dog cooked in maple sap.
“Geez, [the hot dogs] do taste better,” Wolniewicz said. “There is a different quality to them.”
To get the kids acquainted with where their syrup comes from, tours for schools are available Feb. 25 through March 7, Tuesday through Friday. After-school and youth group tours are also offered on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, Feb. 25 and 26, and March 4 and 5.
To try Ipswich River’s syrup for yourself, you can swing by the gift shop and buy a leaf-shaped bottle, priced at $6 for 1.7 ounces and $12 for eight ounces.
If you’re lucky, some bottles may have just been bottled that morning.
Depending on how good this season has been to them so far, quantities may be limited. But one thing you can count on is pure, natural syrup — flavored with nothing but nature.Michelle Lahey, a professional chef, writes about food at www.theeconomicaleater.com.