Monday, April 7, 2008

"....equal marriage of the Sun and Frost"

It is the time of year when the native people in this area packed up the winter lodge and travelled to the maple forest where, each year, they came together with family and friends foir the process of making maple sugar. After a winter in isolation, spent indoors near the warmth of the fire, the sweetness of the sugar probably paled in comparison to the merriment of being reunited with loved ones and days spent in company.

It was also a time of intense labor, in which every person able to walk participated. Little ones could gather sticks and twigs to help the perpetual fires under the pots of boiling sap and there were jobs for all. It takes 40 gallons of maple sap, boiling non-stop, to evaporate down into one gallon of maple syrup - and the Indians didn't use syrup. Boiling a little longer made it thick enough to granulate, if stirred vigorously with a paddle, and it was then pushed into round molds cut into a log. The hard cakes of maple sugar can be stored for a very long time.

Last Saturday was one of those days when you know there WILL be a Spring. It was about 64 degrees, sunny and fresh. We had planned to go, as we do every year, to the MacKenzie Center (near Poynette, WI) where they have a large sugarbush and open it to the public for one day. The trees have been tapped, the buckets are full, and they have stations where folks show the tapping, the boiling - how the Native people made their sugar. They also sell t-shirts, &c. (Nature centers NEED fundraisers, I am here to tell you. You've been told.) At one place they have thin slices of dill pickle which have been marinating in maple syrup for three days to sample. NOTE: I looked at them and have to report: Mrs McSkeptic took one - and tried to figure out how I could change my appearance enough to go back a few more times. I'm going to "try this at home".

This is sap being collected in a clear bag; there was no one to ask how long it had taken to draw off this much sap. You can see that it's clear, and also that this is being a very GOOD year. The weather has been perfect (warm mornings, below freezing at night).

I have a little set at the Museum that I use to talk about the Native people making maple sugar in the spring, consisting of a jar of clear sap, a bottle of "genuine Wisoonsin Maple Syrup" and a few hard, puck-like cakes of maple sugar (which was the form the Indians used -- if someone kicked over an open makuk of syrup in the wigwam, well - there would be one mighty angry mom. I can say that with authority because I have a very vivid imagination.

As long as we were there, I had a new, clean jar and the intention of asking to fill it with the sap, to replace the two-year-old jar at the Museum. One of the staff led us to one of the regular buckets which was all but spilling over, and said "Help yourself, we'll probably just tip this out." (They can only boil up so much, they haven't the wherewithal to actually make up syrup. In spite of the fact that it's a rich sugarbush, they only tap a few trees for demonstration purposes.)

This is OUR tree, the source of our sap. The staff fellow showed me spots where it had been tapped in the past, many times. I used a paper cup to dip out the sap into our jar, and when it was full.....I filled the cup once more and drank it down, every drop. The sap is pretty much flavorless. It was cold, refreshing - but the only hint of sweetness in it was only in my Expectation. Someone may know what caused the Indians' discovery of boiling it down for hours and hours to make food (it's a 40:1 ratio, 40 gallons of sap makes one gallon of syrup) but I prefer to muse on that as one of the Great Mysteries.

All in all, an interesting and lovely day, balmy and fun. We did, of course, have the requisite little blob of ice cream with about a pint of maple syrup on it. TRUE CONFESSION: if I have nothing handy to put maple syrup on, I chug it from the bottle dip it directly from a spoon. Deal with it. (When you get to a Certain Age, you really can do whatever you want. Mostly.)

Afterward we stopped at our favorite Amish grocery. They have a lot of things in bulk (plastic bags) at very good prices; they have oddments that are hard to find elsewhere - for example, the very best supply of wicks and caps and things for oil lamps; and the BEST supply of candy anywhere.

It's mostly bulk too, These are anice mints, which are divine; I also always buy pretend twizzlers, which come in a variety of yummy flavors. This time I got Green Apple and Cinnamon. There's nothing like a nice chewy rope-y deal, I always say. They also have really good bulk packages of things like gravy mix and soup mixes. It's always very busy when we're there, although it's admittedly almost all "the english".

Oh, knitting? Why YES!

I found that, as advertised, my clever little knitting bowl does stay stable on the floor of the car, so I was able to make a little progress, at least, on my............on my........can you guess what I'm knittin' here?

It's a toque!!


Anonymous said...

The mystery of how anyone ever figured out that they could make sweet yummy maple syrup from maple sap is akin to one that has puzzled me for years: how did anyone ever decide that lobster and crab -- which look pretty darned ugly and icky in the wild -- are totally yummy if cooked?

dale-harriet said...

Kathy - matter o'fact, lobsters were probably a mainstay (no pun intended) at the "First Thanksgiving" but they weren't popular, because they are so gol-danged ugly! No one thought to bring melted butter, I suppose.

Anonymous said...

Ahhhhhhgh! Run for your lives, it's the "Attack of the Toque's!"

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful post! My husband and I have been pondering the wonders of maple syrup. We have a huge maple in our front yard that drips sap onto our driveway in the spring, and we always joke that we should tap the tree.

Happy spring - well, we had it for a day anyway...


MollyBeees said...

Wow!I've never seen sap collected in plastic bags before. We used wooden buckets. Dern new-fangled technology. I'm gettin' old. Ya wouldn't you like to meet the man who first guy who looked at a lobster and said, "Ya know, I'm gonna eat that!"

Alwen said...

We've done it (sugaring off) for the last couple of years, and it was indeed an excellent sap run this year. I could have made much more than the quart or so that does us for pancakes and waffles throughout the year.

My personal thought about native sugaring off is that they probably used freeze-concentrating a LOT more than they ever told me at the local nature centers, but that makes a much less purty demonstration than all those clouds of steam.

You just let the sap freeze overnight and pour the liquid, more-concentrated core out in the morning. Or sometimes you can pull, tug, the icy outside out and let the concentrate run back in. That makes boiling off a lot more efficient.

Yarnhog said...

That is so, so cool! I've been fascinated by the syrup making process since my very first (of about 200) reading of the Little House books. I had no idea that the sap was clear. Isn't that funny? I always pictured it the same color as the syrup, and you've now shaken my entire mental landscape with that clear sap.

I always wonder how people figured out what to eat. Like cottage cheese, for example. It just doesn't look like something you would want to eat, you know? Or olives. It's not like you can eat them off the tree--there's a lot of work involved in making them edible. Or coconut. Or eggs. I could go on forever, probably, but I won't! Thanks for a great post.

Crazy Lady with purple fingers said...

Love your blog and love the great bowl for the yarn, what a great idea, will have to get myself one! Right now my ball of yarn is in a plastic container.