Maple travels from tree to table
As the sap rises this time of year, our interest in cooking with maple does too
Julia Schwierking helps Sheryl Pedrick, the education director at Ladew Gardens, pour the liquid they collected from a maple tree that will be used to make maple syrup. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun photo / January 30, 2013)
The education coordinator at the gardens has been tapping the maple trees the old-fashioned way — with a hand drill and metal spouts and stainless steel buckets that she's collected from farm sales — and before the season ends in March, she will have collected 30 or 40 gallons of sap and boiled it down until it becomes the delicious amber-colored syrup that puts Aunt Jemima to shame.
"This time of year," she says, "the roots are starting to send the sugar back up through the tree to start the buds. And we have the freezing at night and the thawing during the day that creates the pressure you need for the sap to flow."
The process will be on display this weekend when Pedrick and Ladew volunteers lead a series of tours on Saturday and Sunday along the nature trail on the 250-acre estate bequeathed to the public by Harvey Ladew. Adults and children alike will see trees tapped, sap collected and then help with the boiling process at an outdoor fire just like the colonials would have used.
Maple syrup is a treat Native Americans introduced to the settlers, who contributed the iron kettles. Native Americans reduced the sap to syrup by putting stones heated by fire into wooden vessels containing the liquid.
Today, farmers often collect syrup during the winter to supplement their income from summer crops. Because they might tap hundreds of trees, they often do it using plastic tubing, giant vats and gravity.
We associate maple sugar with Vermont and Pedrick has visited maple stands there, but she says climate changes mean that more and more of our maple syrup is coming from Canada.
"They have the cold to do it," she said.
The trees she has tapped are the offspring of the maples planted by Ladew 50 years ago in his more formal gardens, considered one of the five most beautiful gardens in the country. Since a tree should have a circumference of at least 31 to 32 inches, those "babies" are only now large enough to tap.
Any maple tree will produce sap for syrup but it is the appropriately named sugar maple that will give you the most syrup. That's because its sap contains twice as much sugar — 2 percent compared to 1 percent — as other maples.
That 1 percent or 2 percent is the reason all the sap Pedrick collects won't produce enough maple syrup for a decent pancake breakfast. (Visitors for this weekend's tours will taste maple syrup — with pancakes — but Pedrick will have had to purchase it.) A dozen gallons of sap from a sugar maple might produce a quart of syrup, while it would take 24 gallons from red maple trees.
The trees carry evidence of other sap gatherers, too. The yellow-bellied sapsucker will peck a series of holes in the bark of a maple tree just deep enough to release some sap, which attracts insects to eat.
"We don't know for sure, but he might like the sap, too," said Pedrick.
Each tree can be tapped every year — although not in the same spot — and really large trees can be tapped for two, three or four buckets at a time.
"But it is like giving blood," Pedrick. "You don't want to take more than it needs to live.
Her equipment is clean and sterile, and the spot where the tree is tapped will scar over. Almost as soon as the drill is removed, the sap starts to ooze out. The sap bucket is covered to keep rain, squirrels, insects and debris out, but Pedrick still strains it through cheesecloth and into large stock pots before boiling it down.
As the water evaporates, she says, her home fills with steam, and as the sap boils down, she can detect that familiar sweet maple smell. She moves the sap to smaller and smaller pots until her eye, or her candy thermometer, tells her that it is the right consistency. The goal is 66 percent sugar.
Farmers have sap houses, she says, where most steam escapes through a cupola on the roof and the rest runs down the walls like rain.
"It boils away really fast at the end," Pedrick says. "If you don't pay attention, you could have maple candy instead of maple syrup."