A few months ago, the Accidental Locavore met Dana and Laura of Finding Home Farms. They make artisanal maple syrup in upstate New York. Maple syrup is in Dana’s blood — his family has been tapping trees for generations. However, his operation isn’t the stick-a-bucket-on-a-tree-and-then-boil-the-sap-over-a-wood-fire of our childhoods. Yes, high tech has come to sugaring. Here are a few things I learned touring the trees with Dana:
- It’s a tough job. Just setting up the lines to tap the trees on 55 acres took Dana and his helpers 3-4 months. Even though the equipment has gotten more advanced than the bucket-tree- wood- fire, it’s still a very hands-on, labor-intensive process. And then there’s Mother Nature…
- This year they started getting sap at the end of January. Last year it wasn’t until March 9th. This year they’ve already stopped production, because when the trees start budding the sap goes bad.
- Trees have to be at least 9-10″ in diameter to be tapped. Making syrup is not something you can do on a whim. To be that big, a sugar maple will be about 25 years old.
- Imagine boiling down 100 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup. Most of the time the ratio of sap to syrup is about 40 or 50 gallons to 1. Because of the early start, this year’s sap is very light and the ratio for Dana is more like 100:1.
- Syrup comes in four different grades, but surprisingly, it’s not a matter of how long they boil it. It depends on how it comes out of the trees. Usually darker syrup comes at the beginning and end of the season. I’m partial to the darker ones because I use them mostly in cooking. What about you?
- Like wine or vegetables, maple syrup has a terroir, meaning that the flavor varies greatly depending on whether it comes from New York, Vermont, or Canada. And the syrup you make will even taste different from the guy down the block.
- New York is the second biggest producer of syrup in the US, second only to Vermont. But it’s no contest with Quebec, where about 75% of the world’s syrup is produced.
- Which is why there’s a maple syrup mafia cartel. All Canadian syrup has to go through the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers. They set an annual quota and if you produce more than your allotment…
- You must send your extra syrup to a Fort Knox-like storage facility, the strategic reserve, where it sits until the group needs to tap it in a low-yield year. Or it gets stolen (this is worth reading).
- But not to worry, even though you have to cook the sap within 24 hours, the syrup keeps for a long time, especially in glass bottles. And you can freeze it.
- “Production of maple syrup is one of only a few agricultural processes in the Northeast that is not a European colonial import.”
So, the next time you sit down to a plate full of pancakes or waffles and cover them with maple syrup, think about what it takes to make that bottle and enjoy!