Early spring in the Hudson Valley can seem bland and colorless; the natural world is awash in muted, monochromatic light and the short, cold days are punctuated by a still-early-to-arrive nightfall. One mouthwatering bright spot enlightens this time of year, though: the tapping and boiling of the sap of the sugar maple tree–an act that refines the thin sap into caramel-y, vanilla-y, nutty, buttery maple syrup.
If you’ve never tried the real stuff (not the thick, corn-syrup based goo found in most supermarket brands) you’re really missing out. Despite my earlier attempt at poetics, the taste of maple syrup is indescribable. It’s impossibly sweet, but in a hearty and earthy way that sugar-cane based sweeteners can never be, and it tastes delicious on many foods…not just pancakes and waffles. It’s great drizzled over ice cream and as a coffee sweetener and for baking and caramelizing carrots and sweet potatoes. It also makes a delicious salad dressing.
Maple trees, which grow abundant in the northeastern part of the United States, produce sugar in their leaves during the process of photosynthesis. During the fall and winter months, the sugar is stored (as starch) in the tree’s trunks and roots. Come springtime, the starch is converted to sugar and rises in the sap as the weather warms. When holes are bored into the trunks of the trees, sap pours out and can be collected and boiled down to make syrup.
Our family has a special connection to syrup-making. Noah’s old school was famous for its syrup-making curriculum. Every March the kids would tag and tap every maple tree on campus and boil down the collected sap in an outdoor evaporator that had been fashioned from a Native American design. The kids would keep track of the sap output and record day & nighttime temperature fluctuations (sap flows best when the nights are cold but the days are warm(ish)) and figure out the evaporation rate and sugar content and grade. They’d collect firewood and measure the circumference of the trees. And the culmination of all of their hard work would be a giant pancake breakfast for the entire school.
One year they even got to make syrup with Pete Seeger–whose beloved home in the Hudson Valley is just a few miles from where we live.
This upcoming weekend, and for several weekends to come, farms all across the Hudson Valley will host ‘sugaring weekends’ when they’ll throw open the frozen doors of their barns and sugar shacks and invite the public inside for a peek at (and a taste of) their very first crop of the year–bottles of golden maple syrup. Bottles which hold the color and promise of sunshine–and warmer days to come.