“Mom, you’re out of your mind! What are you doing?” In the beginning of March, the days are noticeably longer and the sun actually has some warmth in it. Early mornings feel fresh. But the wood-stove is still lit, and on top of it, in a large flat pan, I am boiling sap.
The sweet steam hits when you come in through the mudroom.
“I hope you don’t have any wall paper in the house,” a friend mentions. “They say all that steam makes wall paper come off. Besides, your ceilings will get sticky.”
I don’t think so. Actually I don’t care and the ceiling needs painting anyway after all the ice damming. I am going to make syrup, if for no other reason than to see if I can.
There are five maple trees on the line between my house and my neighbor’s – the line we call the lower forty, which, in this case, means forty feet. Only four of the trees are large enough for tapping, so I have borrowed four sap buckets, lids and taps from friends who sugar in Shelburne, and I have bought a white felted filter from Paris Farmer’s Union to strain the hot liquid.
It is a far cry from the days and nights I spent sugaring thirty years ago in northwestern Connecticut in Great Mountain Forest. The sugar-house, nestled down in a hollow, was surrounded the sugar bush. Its eaves were deep,draped with icicles; the woodpile in back a fortress wall. After collecting sap, riding on the back of an old red tanker truck, filling it by hand, bucket by bucket, we piped it into a collecting tank and headed in to watch the boil. Inside the building, all was dark wood and steam, the fire pulsing, and metal surfaces, evaporating pans, shining; steam wafted up through vents high above. To a young painter,this was a dream, it felt like being inside a water-color. But food, actually a kind of nectar, was being produced. We fed the fire. We watched. We measured. We tasted. The sound of bubbling mesmerized: the steam was intoxicating.
I took paper and watercolor paints to try and capture the wet warmth of that room, snug against the chill of the night outside. How to paint the flickering, steamy light? Capture the sweet, faint dirt smell? How would you describe the taste, a sweet like no other, with its earthiness, the roots of trees and water of leaves within?
As a young child, we collected sap and boiled it in a cauldron slung from a tri-pod over a fire in southern Vermont. Soft spring snow gave way underfoot. Below the fire circle was the sledding hill. Our fathers made the syrup; we rode our toboggans.
My attempt to make syrup on a woodstove from the sap of four very local trees on the lower forty, smack in the middle of town, is laden with memories, but in fact represents nothing more than an attempt to understand the boiling better. As my friend Margy, who has ten taps on six huge maples out front of her Cornwall house every year, says, “It’s a miracle. I mean, who would have thought that from something that watery dripping out of a tree comes something so good and free – it’s just a miracle.”
It is clear that the real syrup makers know things I can only dream of. I visit them every summer at Field Days, check the colors of the syrup, taste the different grades, ask questions, savor the smoothness of the maple cream (my favorite) on my tongue, nibble into the molded maple sugar candies. I visit sap houses every winter. I help friends collect the sap in buckets. I sample the fresh hot liquid as it reaches perfection, sometimes eat it on snow, and occasionally crunch pickles to cut the sweetness so I can have more. But I have never observed a boil from start to finish.
Frankly, it doesn’t go that well. It is hard to figure out the right temperature. At first I boil it too hard, and the syrup is too thick for the filter. I start again. Outside, the weather warms, the sap flow alters. Other days, the sap runs so rapidly, I can’t keep up with it. But eventually, I find a rhythm and the right boil, and finally there is a clear golden quart of syrup.
“Don’t touch it!” I tell my sons, “at least, not yet.” My brother calls from New York City, “I’ll take two gallons, please.”
In the end, I have four glorious quarts of light brown maple syrup, that my family nicknames “South Street Gold.” We savor it teaspoonful by teaspoonful. The house smells of wood-smoke and a vague unidentifiable sweetness. The ceiling is not sticky. We’ve lost no wallpaper and we look at our maples with more respect; they’ve sweetened our life.