Mature Life Features

Cecil Scaglione, Editor

Sweet Springtime

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It’s the time of year for a ritual that predates by centuries the arrival of European settlers in the New World.

The indigenous folk of this continent had been producing the comfortably sweet product for centuries but how they came to make use of sap running out of maple trees is clouded in several legends. Until the Europeans used a tube to tap into the tree trunks, the native people sliced a tomahawk into the tree and caught the clear liquid in a birch bark bucket.

The maple syrup ingathering season runs from late February to early April, when the days are balmy and the nights freeze.

Snow still covers the underbrush of southern Canada and the northern states when folks gather in maple groves to collect and save the sweetness for their kitchens. Corporate mechanized production that accounts for some 5 million gallons each year has replaced much of the old time fun.

Us kids in northern Ontario used to run into the nearby woods and snag sap icicles to suck on the way to school.

Canada produces more than 80 percent of the world’s maple syrup. The province of Quebec whose border is just an hour from my home town, accounts for 90 percent of that amount.

Memories still linger of a time when we would collect the pails of sap and take them to the boiling kettle where 40 gallons of clear sap was processed into one gallon of caramel colored maple syrup. To keep us kids happy, the adults would toss a ladle-full of the brown bubbling syrup onto the snow and watch us scramble for fists-full of snow-taffy.

The finished syrup would be ladled, scooped and poured into 16-ounce mason jars with the time-honored screw-on caps. When we got the syrup home, our mothers would set aside a pint of the liquid to make a pound of maple sugar they would save for special occasions – or sprinkle over tea when their friends would visit.

Desert dune-buggy treks can’t match the excitement that built up as we climbed aboard a horse-drawn sled heading for the sugar shack, where the scent of  burning cedar logs mingled with the singularly sweet aroma of hot thickening maple syrup.

I could warm my hands and feet over the crackling fire. If I was lucky, the adults would let me swab the sides of the huge boiling kettle with slabs of pork fat lashed to long poles. This prevented the sugar from becoming spongy and bubbling over like bread dough. And it gave me the opportunity to scoop up some hot bubbling sweetness in my long-handled tin cup.

I would dash outside and pour the searing sweetness onto a patch of crystal white snow that hardened immediately into sheets of snow taffy.  I called it my own form of Baked Alaska.

Tribal history has it that some warriors were honing their tomahawk throws for accuracy when one hit a maple tree and a clear liquid began to flow from the gash.

Moqua, the spouse of the mighty Iroquois hunter Woksis, had been resting by a nearby tree on her way to get some water in a nearby creek. When she saw the clear liquid that had formed into a small pool at the base of the tree, she scooped it up and used it for cooking.

Her husband was so pleased with the sweetness of the venison he was served that night that he relayed the word to other hunters and tribes encountered on his hunting forays. They tried it, and liked it.

Some tribes rendered the sap into sugar cakes because they were easier to transport than liquid syrup. They also used it for trade – a form of money, if you will. The sweetness was use to flavor food, in much the same it is used today.

When the first European settlers arrived, they saw the natives transforming sap into syrup by tossing red-hot stones into hewed-out logs filled with the “sweet water.” These pioneers bored holes into the maples and squeezed in small tubes, or taps, to channel the dripping sap into wooden buckets.

Written by Cecil Scaglione

March 7, 2023 at 7:20 pm

Posted in News / Events

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