Vermont Country Journal~ ‘Tap Dance’

Who’s there?
Maple who?
I  may pull one over on you
If you’re reading this joke.”

I know. I didn’t get it either. Vermont humor is kinda where you find it. I swear old Vermonters tell jokes like this for the pleasure of watching Flatlanders scratch their heads saying “what?”  This is in response, of course, for old Vermonters scratching their heads over the antics of city folk. Our brother Lenny knows these things. His dry gentle façade belies a wit and quiet irony that has even cracked M up a number of times. He was my sibling best friend all the while we were growing up and came to be again after many years of separation being on opposite coasts. Lenny is 10 months and 29 days older than me. We are as close to being ‘twins’ without being twins that can be, and we always have had fun with that. We liked the same things, had the same friends, and did everything together. At this time of year, in particular, I really miss Lenny. He moved to Florida (as old Vermonters have been known to do) at the end of the first summer we moved back east.Why this time of year in particular? Maple tree tapping time is why. Every year of our youth on the first of March, we ushered in the signs of spring by drilling holes into the big beautiful maples out front, pounding hand whittled spouts into those holes, and got great satisfaction watching the drip-drip-drip of the sap-sap-sap from the tap-tapped trees. The ritual provided a much-appreciated light at the end of the long winter tunnel. As the maple trees called to us, the warming days call to the maple trees.

First Signs of Life

In order to get enough sap to turn into maple syrup, trees have to freeze at night and warm during the day. In the  fall, maple trees virtually stop growing and begin storing excess starches in the trunks and branches. Excess starch remains in storage as long as the wood remains colder than about 40 degrees F. Whenever wood temperatures reach around 40 degrees, enzymes in the cells change the starches to sugars, largely sucrose. This sugar then passes into the tree sap. As the temperature increases to about 45 degrees F, the enzymes stop functioning and sugar is no longer produced. In March and April, the sugar changes back to starch—except during periods of flow. Rising temperature creates pressure inside trees, causing sap to flow. When a hole is bored into a tree, wood fibers that are water/sap carrying vessels are severed, so sap drips out of the tree.

* * * * *

The Seasons of Maple

Spring – This is the time of the most activity when the syrup is being made and most of the harvest  work is done. Most sugarhouses in Vermont are open to the public during the boiling season, and many have restaurants where you can have pancake breakfasts with freshly made maple syrup. Because sap must be boiled immediately to make the best syrup, sugarmakers are often boiling late  into the night, and occasionally around the clock.

Summer – In the summer, chlorophyll, the green pigment in the leaves, absorbs energy from the sun; and the roots absorb water and minerals from the soil. In the process of photosynthesis, a simple sugar is produced, which is converted to starch, and is stored within the tree. This is the maple tree’s food and energy reserve. It is also the basis for the sweet sap to be harvested 9 months later. Some producers fertilize their trees, and many thin out the “weed” trees in the sugarbush, to allow room for the maples to grow.

Autumn – As fall arrives, the days become cooler and shorter and the leaves begin to slow down their chlorophyll production. Sugar remaining in the leaves combines with other substances, and the  leaves turn the spectacular red and gold colors of fall. After the leaves drop, it is a lot easier to work in the woods because visibility is greater, and the heat and insects of summer are gone. This is the time of the year for the sugarmaker to clean up his sugarbush, repair damage by fallen or dead trees, and to cut firewood for the house or for burning in the evaporator.

Winter – During the winter, the trees remain dormant. The starch is stored within the tree, waiting to be converted to sugar in the spring, and to sweeten the sap that the tappers like us will gather. This is

the long haul that leaves way too much time to time to think about the upcoming maple season and dream about warmer times ahead.

Last year, M and I didn’t get an early start on ‘Sap Season’. It was nearly April before we drilled our first hole or hung the first collection buckets. A late season snowstorm brought about the chance for a taste treat not experienced in many years. It is called ‘Sugar-on-Snow’. Snow that falls in warmer weather becomes very granular and is referred to as ‘Corn Snow’.

Did someone say corn?

‘Sugar-on-Snow’ is a delicacy that has been enjoyed for over 200 years. It is made by pouring maple syrup which has been brought to a boil until it is around 250 degrees. The syrup is then poured over corn snow and immediately hardens to a taffy-like consistency.

No one really knows who first discovered how to make syrup and sugar from the sap of a maple tree. We know that maple syrup was an important commodity in the North American Indian economy. Maple syrup and sugar were used for barter by Indians living along the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River.

In 1663, English chemist Robert Boyle told associates in Europe, “There is in some parts of New England a kind of tree whose juice that weeps out its incision, if it is permitted slowly to exhale away the superfluous moisture, doth congeal into a sweet and saccharin substance and the like was confirmed to me by the agent of the great and populace colony of Massachusetts.”

We believe he really meant Vermont. Vermont has an ideal climate for growing sugar maple trees and for sap flow and is the largest producer of syrup in the U.S., with 450,000 US gallons in 2007. The sugar maple is the state tree. A scene of sap collection is depicted on the Vermont State quarter.

* * * * *

Maple Cream Pudding

* 2 cups milk

* 1 cup maple syrup

* 6 Tbsp. cornstarch

* 1/4 tsp. salt

* 2 eggs, slightly beaten

* 1/2 cup chopped nuts

· 1 cup whipping cream

Scald 1 3/4 cups milk with the maple syrup in the top of a double boiler. Combine the remaining milk with the cornstarch and salt. Add gradually, stirring constantly, to the hot mixture. Cook 15 minutes, then add this to lightly beaten egg. Cook until the eggs thicken. Pour into serving dish and sprinkle with chopped nuts while the pudding is still hot. When cold, cover with whipped cream or whipped topping, if desired.

* * * * *

So, the Guys in Vermont have come out of hibernation. We are not sad to kiss winter goodbye. The time honored tradition of making maple syrup is a welcomed change. The days starts early with the first trip out to the trees to collect the sweet nectar sap and continues throughout the day. The whole house has turned into a maple sauna for a few weeks as we boil it down on the kitchen stove;  a small price to pay for the liquid gold that is like none you’ve ever tasted. The first batch is just about ready and looking for a good pancake or waffle to run into. Here’s lookin’ at you~Lenny!

( For further tapping adventures click HERE )

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