The Sweet Season

Sean Sullivan
Issue Date: 
April, 2020
Article Body: 

Approaching Natick Community Organic Farms, one could see - and smell - the smoke rising from a wooden shack. Not an unusual sight in wintertime New England, but for the hut’s small size and the outsized volume of smoke that poured forth. The color of what came from the two chimneys, too, might have conjured questions from a casual passerby.
This put me in mind of that rare process of choosing a pope, when so many eager eyes are affixed to the smoke (fumata) wafting from the conclave chimney. There, black smoke indicates indecision, while white signals that a new pope has been chosen.
But here at NCOF, fumata nera and bianca mingled together, each emanating from its own chimney above the shack. What to make of these mixed messages? Sweet syrup, of course. For this was a process of the maple - not papal - persuasion.
Here, the white steam and black smoke were by-products of boiling sap to unlock the maple syrup secreted within, that honey-hued holy water that blesses so many a breakfast table. Millions of people the world over worship some version of the sweet substance that emerges from the shack, anointing with it numberless stacks of pancakes and French toast.
There’s something of the sacred ritual in this, when we of the unwashed masses in some roadside diner drizzle the substance from stainless-steel dispensers upon a short stack to start the day.
Straight from the tree, pure maple sap contains only about three-percent of the saccharine and savory solution people pour over their pancakes. The rest is water, which must be boiled away to reveal the viscous and delicious amber product purchased and poured by so many people.
Enter the “sugar shack,” which we did, the crucible wherein this sought-after substance is created. Two members of the sugar shack’s crew tended the fire and its vat of steaming sap-to-syrup, at times scooping out sediments that are present within the raw product. Accomplished via handheld, wool membranes, this old-fashioned filtering is called “aproning.”
We stood around the boiling cauldron as its crew monitored their brew, the small wooden shack filled with a moist heat. Beneath the vessel of maple sap, they minded a wood-fed fire that kept the concoction around 220 degrees, the point at which sap comes to a boil.
This was a kitchen of sorts, concerned with cooking a single product, filled with the sweet fragrance of what was being prepared on the stove. Steam from the process permeated the place, fogging glasses and filling nostrils with the sweet tinge of maple sugar.
Audra Friend, in her fourth year volunteering with the farm, was our guide.
“It’s kind of a magic art/science project to make something delicious,” she said, adding that the effects of climate change have shifted and shrunk the sugaring season. Owing to warmer winters, the crew begins their process earlier and has a shorter window in which to do their work.
Nine-year-old Natick resident Maya said her favorite part of the process was the sugar shack, a refuge from the wind and chilly air outside. “Taste testing,” was also high on her list.
“I liked the sugar shack, because it was warm and smelled good,” she said.
A path leads from the shack to the farm’s main complex, crossing over a small stream that flowed too freely for the final days of February. Absent were those thin, brittle margins of ice - like sugar glass - that border edges of New England streams in its coldest months. It had been a strikingly mild few weeks - the second-warmest February on record - and one marked by scant snowfall.
This kind of shift in weather patterns can stymie the efforts of maple sap harvesters. There’s a window of six to eight weeks when sap can be gleaned from the trees, and this process depends on reliable fluctuations in temperature. A sub-freezing night, followed by an above-freezing day, is ideal for getting juices flowing within the maples.
A mature tree can yield forty gallons of sap per season, and volunteers at NCOF say they draw conservatively from their maples to better ensure the health of the towering trees.
“It’s kind of like taking blood,” said Friendly.
To make 20 gallons of maple syrup requires the burning of approximately a full cord of wood. That’s a stack of wood four feet wide and high, and eight feet long, which contains about 20,000,000 BTUs, a standard unit of energy measure. That roughly equates to 150 gallons of fuel oil.
NCOF burns through about 10 cords of wood every sugaring season, and last year produced 198 gallons of maple syrup. As of the middle of last month, the farm had gleaned 114 gallons. The price of all that energy and labor is much of what makes true maple syrup so expensive, compared to those artificially-flavored impostors found upon grocery shelves.
Volunteers demonstrated a more passive (and far less polluting) way of procuring maple syrup from sap, though it’s hard to see how the technique could be scaled up to produce the product in large quantities. If left to freeze in winter air, water and solids stratify within the sap, with its sugar sinking to the vessel’s bottom. The surface water freezes first and can be scooped out, thereby leaving a more concentrated (sugary) sap.
For early colonists, the extraction and processing of sap was their only reliable source of sugar. It could be boiled down to solid bars, traded and sold, saved for later use. Colonists first learned of the presence and value of maple sap from indigenous peoples, who had their own ways of concentrating the sugar that seeps from trees.
Lacking metal cookware in which to boil sap, they heated stones fireside, which were then dropped into wooden vessels filled with the liquid. The addition of more hot stones would eventually bring the sap to a boil. NCOF volunteers offered visitors a demonstration of the old-school technique.
Deena Kanopkin and Dede Dussault stood warmed by a small fire encircled with stones, one of which Kanopkin scooped from the heat with a forked stick. Dropping it into a small, hollowed-out log filled with water, the stone sputtered and steamed, hissing as it transferred its energy to the liquid.
“They keep giving back to us every year,” she said of the maple trees, though the sentiment could just as well apply to those native peoples that shared with early colonists the knowledge and techniques that helped them survive the new environment.
Sweet skills, indeed.