Why don’t we brag about maple syrup?

Pioneers lived on it, outsiders rave about it, it costs peanuts to produce and it’s a $13-million windfall to farmers. But we neglect whole forests that could treble our output while gourmets ask

Frank Croft March 16 1957

Why don’t we brag about maple syrup?

Pioneers lived on it, outsiders rave about it, it costs peanuts to produce and it’s a $13-million windfall to farmers. But we neglect whole forests that could treble our output while gourmets ask

Frank Croft March 16 1957

Why don’t we brag about maple syrup?

Frank Croft

Pioneers lived on it, outsiders rave about it, it costs peanuts to produce and it’s a $13-million windfall to farmers. But we neglect whole forests that could treble our output while gourmets ask

Sometime between the first crow’s cawing and the bullfrog’s opening croak, there is another unmusical but thrilling sound of spring in the maple stands of eastern Canada. It is the steady ping-ping-ping of sap dripping into twenty million buckets.

From four to six weeks after the sap begins to flow the harvest will amount to more than two and a half million gallons of maple syrup and half a million pounds of maple sugar. To the Canadian farmer it means a gross income of thirteen million dollars. For this the farmer does next to nothing, except tap his trees, hang pails on them and gather the sap, for the maple requires no care whatsoever, a fact that often fills farmers far from Canada with envy.

Impressed by the flavor of maple syrup—tangy yet sweet—and the hardy growth of the Canadian

maple, European countries have tried to transplant it, without success. It remains a native of North America, growing in some parts of Ontario, most of Quebec, in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia and about a dozen of the northeastern states.

But Quebec produces more maple syrup and sugar than all other parts of the continent together. Ninety percent of the Canadian output comes from there and half the maple syrup consumed in the U. S. is from Quebec. Americans who sample it can’t get enough of it.

But, perhaps because maple products have always been so easy to get in Canada, in such quantity at such little cost, they have always been more cherished abroad than at home—and still are. When the Queen of the Netherlands, then Princess Juliana, was living in Ottawa during the war, she delighted in attending springtime sugaring-off parties up the Ottawa River, where farmers invite the countryside to sample the sweets of the harvest. An early and aristocratic Canadian

settler, the Baron de La Hontan, fell in love with maple syrup at his first taste. He exhorted settlers to tap trees, wrote home about it and insisted in a letter to the governor of New France: “It (maple syrup) is better than any other drink, none of which has such an exquisite taste, nor is so healthy.”

Today a Calgary distillery is producing a maple-syrup liqueur as a possible rival to the Scottish Drambuie, but otherwise in Canada the sweet-tasting maple is frankly and shamefully neglected, except in a few farm kitchens, w'here, to older generations at least, it conjures up delightful and mouth-watering memories of golden butter melting over piping-hot flapjacks, pork strips on the side, all swimming in the light-brown syrup, and washed down with buttermilk. Or slabs of fresh homemade bread, thickly buttered, dunked in a porridge dish full of new maple syrup. Or syrup on fresh warm johnnycake, or poured over rhubarb pie.

In Quebec they still have their own favorites.

A two-inch-thick steak of ham, for instance, is rubbed with mustard, then placed in a baking pan in enough syrup to cover the slice, and baked for two hours. The golden meat tails away from the fork like pie crust, and tastes like a gourmet’s first meal in heaven. To most Quebeckers the only baked apple worth digging a spoon into is one with butter and maple syrup placed in the core cavity, instead of sugar.

New Englanders found long ago that rum, maple syrup, butter, and boiling water make a toddy that takes the sting out of their bleak winters, while a mixture of rum, iced tea, maple syrup and lemon is a summer cooler in New England and the Maritimes.

Half a century ago these were common delights in every Canadian home, but today they are far from familiar. While gourmets may praise it, maple syrup is a faltering also-ran in the race for popularity with corn or other syrups—not because it is short in supply, because at least fifty million maple trees, which could treble our production, remain untapped.

On a sugar stick, baked apple or a thick is a clisli for a king. Are we letting it

ham steak, maple syrup become just a memory?

Even for the farmer the maple harvest is matter-of-course—fitted with little fanfare into his work—and the reason may be that production is neither costly nor difficult. A typical producer is Kenneth Johnston, of Bulwer. in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. He is the third generation of his family working the homestead farm of three hundred acres. He runs twenty to thirty head of beef cattle and milks twelve cows. He goes in for feed crops mostly, but in March he and the hired man, with an extra helper, will be found in his maple stand ready to tap one thousand trees.

Johnston waits until the temperature has held at thirty-four or thirty-five degrees for a couple of days and not more than twenty at night. I he crows have been vociferous for several days and the ice on the creeks has lost its hard unyielding look.

On the first day of the sap run the men are crunching through the sugary March snow by sunup. With a breast drill fitted with a 7/16inch auger bit, Johnston deftly drills a hole at a slight upward angle, two inches deep, into each maple of ten or more inches in diameter. Two helpers insert metal spouts in the holes and hang two-gallon buckets on the spouts to catch the sap. Johnston taps three to four hundred trees a day.

By midmorning the men are scurrying among the maples like ants at a picnic. The first flow' of sap may reach a three-hundred-drop-a-minute rate, almost a stream, by about ten o'clock, and the buckets fill rapidly. None must overflow; sap is money in the bank for the farmer even though it looks like nothing in the world but rain water. It has, in fact, been continued on page 30

Why don’t we brag about maple syrup? continued from page 25

It takes 21 gallons of sap to get a gallon of syrup, but it's as simple as boiling an egg

mistaken for rain water more than once. In Beauce County they still tell about the Montrealer who, years ago. was driving past a maple stand in March when the radiator of his car started to boil. He noticed a bucket hanging from a tiee

trunk, found that it was full of "rain water,” and was pouring the last drop into his rad when the astonished farmer appeared on bis sap-gathering rounds.

Such mistakes arc not made on the Johnston farm. By noon on the first day

the horse-drawn sled, on which his hundred-and-fifty-gallon gathering tank is mounted, has been on its rounds receiving the contents of more than a hundred sap buckets. Its snakelike course leads to the sugar house deep in the grove, where

it is emptied into an cight-hundred-gallon storage tank. As soon as the storage tank is filled, the sap runs to the evaporator just below.

Many people still think that maple sap is boiled down in a huge iron pot such as cartoonists draw depicting missionaries being prepared for a cannibal feast. Such equipment makes a romantic picture but it has not been seen in Quebec for more than fifty years, though it can still be seen in some parts of the Maritimes and eastern Ontario. The present-day evaporator is a long shallow pan—Johnston’s is four feet by twelve feet and is fourteen inches deep—set above a hardwood fire kept at an even heat. It is here that maple syrup is made. And it is almost as simple as boiling an egg.

When the sap Hows into the evaporator it will be nearly ninety-five percent water. When the water has been evaporated to thirty-five percent, you have maple syrup. Johnston determines by temperature the exact point at which the syrup should be drained from the evaporator: when the bubbling sap is seven degrees higher than the boiling point of water he knows it’s ready.

All sap contains sugar—ordinary sucrose just as in the sugar cane and sugar beet—but the sap of the three great sugar trees—the sugar maple, red maple and black maple—contains a larger amount of sucrose than most other trees. It is seldom less than one and a half percent sugar and may be as high as four percent depending on the soil. It also contains bicarbonates, calcium, potassium phosphates and such trace elements as manganese, magnesium and iron.

The amount of sap that has to be gathered to make one gallon of syrup looks discouragingly large. It takes twenty-one gallons of sap having the highest sugar content to make one gallon of syrup. If the sap is low in sugar, the ratio is fiftyseven gallons to one.

As maple syrup is sap that has been boiled down until the sugar and other solids are the preponderant elements (totaling sixty-five percent), all other maple products arc merely sap boiled down still further. Maple butter is eightyfive percent sugar and other solids. It is cooled quickly, stirred rapidly and put in molds. In New Brunswick and Nova Scotia maple cream is a favorite, almost unknown elsewhere. It too is eighty-five percent solids. It is beaten almost as white as paper, then spread on stone slabs whose cool surfaces keep it at a fudgelike consistency. Maple wax has the same solids content as maple butter but it is not stirred or beaten; it’s just eaten as is.

Maple sugar is ninety percent solids, which is a mundane way of describing it. The only way to find out about maple sugar is to knock a good hunk from a block of the stuff, cram it in your mouth and crunch. The flavor seems to be improved when the sugar comes molded in the shape of Indian heads, little animals, maple leaves or log cabins. Maple-sugar sculpture was something of a native art a few years ago when life-size figures standing in glass cases in Montreal’s Windsor Station enchanted young travelers. For years Sir Wilfrid Laurier made his spring appearance carved in maple sugar by some admiring genius whose name has died with his art.

But maple syrup and sugar have more than a gastronomical appeal for the farpier. Johnston, for example, will harvest

nearly two hundred gallons of syrup each season from his thousand trees. Last year he sold it for five to six dollars a gallon, grossing in the neighborhood ot a thousand dollars. Of course, equipment costs money. Producers figure that the cost of an evaporator, buckets, gathering and storage tanks and other items averages ten cents a year for each tree.

A few years ago Quebec farmers were using sap buckets made from terneplate. a metal containing sixty percent lead. It was feared that so much lead could poison the sap, so the provincial and federal governments offered to take in the buckets and each pay a third of the cost of aluminum replacements, the farmer to pay the remaining third. The public was given an eye opener on the amount of equipment used in the maple industry when seventeen million buckets were turned in. There are an estimated three million in other parts of the east, one for each of the twenty million trees tapped every spring.

Buying and maintaining equipment isn't Johnston’s only outlay: he must pay an extra hired man for the maple season. Then comes the big item—fuel. Hardwood is burned under the evaporators and it takes a cord of wood to evaporate enough sap to make ten gallons of syrup. Whether the farmer pays five dollars a cord to an outsider (the prevailing price in Quebec last winter) or cuts and stacks it himself, it is going to cost in time or money about fifty cents a gallon.

But, after his expenses. Johnston still has about seven hundred dollars for less than six weeks' work. "It beats hogs.” he says, referring to the traditional farmmortgage lifters. “It is pleasant work, in the spring, out in the bush,” he adds. "It comes before seeding or other big field jobs so it doesn't interfere. In fact, it is just the job to get a man in shape for the summer.”

A loudmouth on a conch shell

Another advantage is that the maple tree requires no care. It is never pruned, sprayed, dusted or given any attention from one sap run to the next. And it can take more punishment than a chopping block. Fred Heustis, whose farm is in New Brunswick's St. John River valley, has some maples he swears are three hundred years old. He believes that they might have been tapped by Indians' tomahawks, and claims that for more than a century and a half they have been regularly assaulted by the white man's drill. They are still producing as generously as ever.

Just as the tree is indigenous to eastern Canada, so is the sugaring-off party. "Sugaring off” is a generic term. Il describes (he neighborly sampling of newly made syrup, wax, cream, butter or sugar. At one time it ranked with the barn-raising or quilting bee as a major social gettogether. Eighty-nine-year-old Cora Austin. living on the original family farm near Sawyerville, Que., tells of sugaringoff parties as they were more than half a century ago.

"I remember one party in 18X5.” she recalls. "It was a late season that year. We didn't have the sugaring-off party until April 15, but it was a dandy. More than a hundred people came from all parts of the township.”

In those days every farmer in (he Eastern Townships had a conch shell for summoning guests to sugaring-off parties, and anyone w'ithin hearing was a guesl. A man prided himself almost as much on how loudly he could blow the horn as on the quality of his syrup and sugar.

"Dad could really blow on that shell.” Mrs. Austin boasts. "It sounded like the higher notes in a cow's bellow at milking

time and could be heard for miles.”

On that April evening in 1885 her father. Russell Sumbury. stepped from the kitchen door, conch shell in hand. A few early stars glowed in the saffron sky. The surrounding countryside stretched in peaceful stillness before him. Then came the shattering blast. The silence had hardly returned before sleigh bells could be heard in the distance, then others and still others, all converging on the Sumbury sugar house.

The women brought baskets full of little twists of biscuit dough which were

tossed into the big iron kettles. These “maple dumplings” rolled in the boiling syrup, then rose, light and fluffy, to the top to be scooped out and popped piping hot into eager mouths. Some sampled the newly drawn syrup, others preferred a cool drink of the raw sap. Everyone favored the sugar sticks, made by boiling the sap to a thicker consistency than syrup, then pouring it on clean packed snow where it hardened to a taffylike consistency. A variation of the sugar stick was a snowball stuck on a wooden stick and dipped into the hot syrup. Most of

the guests came armed with pine paddles about a foot long. As the maple brew thickened paddles were thrust into it. twisted around, and pulled out heavy with syrup.

Sugaring-off parties as neighborly affairs are rapidly vanishing. They are still held in Quebec and in parts of the Maritimes and Ontario, but they are smaller and less high-spirited now. The maple dumplings have been forgotten, but the sugar stick is still used.

Traditionalists deplore the growth of public sugaring-off parties. Within a

Indians tapped the trees with tomahawks and dropped hot stones in the sap to get their maple sugar

hundred miles of Montreal, Ottawa and other large cities in the maple belt many sugar camps charge admission. Visitors pa\ seventy-five cents or a dollar to enter and sample the crop.

‘They stand around the evaporators, scooping up the thick syrup with paddles included in the admission price,” a disgusted Beauce County farmer told me. “Sociability is about as spontaneous as among people on a crowded bus. But each year these public sugaring-off sessions are becoming more popular.”

Such parties should not be wholly condemned. however. Many farmers split the take with a local charity. At Ironside, a few miles up the Gatineau River from Ottawa, an agricultural school run by the Fathers of the Holy Ghost makes money from sugaring-off parties in the school grove. On some Sundays more than a thousand visitors are on hand.

No one is certain whether the Indians held sugaring-off parties. Certainly maple syrup was being made by the Indians when Europeans first landed on this continent. They tapped the trees by making diagonal gashes with a tomahawk, caught the sap in cone-shaped birch-bark containers, poured it into wooden troughs and laboriously evaporated the sap by dropping hot stones into it.

The early French settlers improved on the Indians’ technique and equipment by using drills, metal spouts, wooden buckets and iron or copper kettles. But they were content to dabble with maple production until late in the seventeenth century when the Baron de La Hontan was given his first taste. The baron was an uninhibited and engaging rogue who in spite of his high rank enlisted as a private in the French army in 1683, arriving in Canada the same year. He quickly earned his commission and traveled widely, not only in New France but to the far west. His book of travels was improbable but ab-

sorbing and ran through several editions in both French and English. La Hontan was crazy about maple syrup. Up and down the St. Lawrence valley he exhorted the settlers to tap more and more trees.

The baron's enthusiasm came in time to save the early French-Canadian sugar supply. The British blockade of the Atlantic coast was cutting off shipments of refined sugar from home, so the hardpressed habitants turned to their maple groves for an unlimited supply of natural sugar. In 1706 the island of Montreal alone produced thirty thousand pounds of maple sugar. Quebec province was the pacesetter for the continent from then on. Toward the close of the eighteenth century Quebec farmers were supplying their own needs and selling a surplus of both sugar and syrup in the towns and cities. But eighty years later maple products were still an insignificant item throughout the rest of Canada. By 1850 Canada was producing thirteen million pounds of maple sugar and syrup a year. Production rose to twenty-two million pounds before 1900.

As the demand increased farmers stretched their production by adding cane sugar or corn syrup to the maple syrup. The demand fell oil'. So in 1915 parliament passed the Maple Products Industry Act to stop adulteration. It was re-enacted in 1945 with stronger penalties (fines of ten to five hundred dollars and/or imprisonment up to six months) that have had their effect. The demand for maple products has increased.

Maple syrup now sells for twice as much as factory-made preserves, or corn or cane syrup. Four years ago there were mutterings of “combine” and "price fixers.” Combines Commissioner T. D. Macdonald investigated but reported that there was no evidence of price fixing.

Fuel is one item that keeps the price up: equipment is another. But the man

with a maple grove continues to improve his methods. Today producers are trying out new ideas that may bring the cost down. Oil. now cheaper than hardwood in many rural areas, is being burned under a few: evaporators and its use may spread. Cheap but efficient plastic bags are replacing buckets on the trees. In some groves, where the trees stand on sloping ground, the sap now flows through plastic

tubes that wind from tree to tree on their downhill course to the evaporator. Developments such as these may change maple syrup into a mass-production operation. It may be that a good many of our untapped maple trees will feel the bite of the auger bit fairly soon.

When they do, it won’t take a modern La Hontan to sell the delicious fluid coming from them. ★