Sugar Rush: The Magic of Maple Syrup
When you think of maple syrup, you may think of pancakes, and also autumn: the golden halo of trees, the blushing leaves, pumpkins, cider.
But the time for maple syrup production is actually right now.
It is only when freezing nights give way to mild daytime temperatures that sap starts flowing.
In the beginning, it’s stop and go. “[The trees] slowly wake up, and then they’re like, ‘OK, we’re awake, let’s go, let’s get the show on the road!'” said Tina Hartell. “As the season progresses, the floodgates open. You’re just buried in sap. That’s where we are right now—it’s just flowing like crazy.”
Hartell makes maple syrup at Bobo’s Mountain Sugar in Weston, Vermont. In these parts, before cheap cane sugar entered the picture, sugar made from maple was the default sweetener.
Earlier in the season, tap holes are drilled into the bark, and the sap flows into plastic tubing connected to a holding tank. But the tank can only hold so much—which is why, during one recent evening in late March at the James Beard House where maple syrup was the theme of the dinner, Hartell was the only half of the duo attending from Bobo’s Mountain Sugar.
Her partner, Skye Chalmers, was tending to the fires and boiling away the sap, well past the dinner, until 11:30 p.m.
The boils are done in the late afternoon or in the evening, although during peak production times, a daytime boil may be necessary as well.
Sap has the consistency of water and is clear, with just a slight hint of sweetness. The sugar content is anywhere from 1 to 4 percent sugar, said Hartell, who is a former high school science teacher. Last year, sap had a high sugar content across the board, while this year, producers are seeing a lower amount of sugar, which means more sap is needed to make the same amount of maple syrup. It takes 40 to 70 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of maple syrup.
It’s all speculation why the sugar content is lower this year, said Hartell. Last year the maple trees produced a large quantity of seeds, which depleted a lot of their resources—and now they’re recuperating, she said. This phenomenon happens cyclically, every five to seven years.
This winter has also been unusually warm. It’s the first time that Hartell remembers starting to make syrup in February. And she never donned snowshoes this season. “Normally I’m in snowshoes in 4 feet of snow,” she said.
In any case, as the season wears on, jackets and hats give way to T-shirts, and the boils at the sugar house make for social occasions.
“Winters are really long in Vermont, they start in November and end in April,” Hartell said. “Everyone kind of comes out of the woodwork. They become these potlucks. People bring beer, and everyone checks in and catches up after a winter.”
The fare is perhaps a tad bit different from what you might see at the Beard House, something Hartell reflected about as she returned home to Vermont.
“There’s a lot of grilled meats, junk foods like chips, salsa, dips. It’s not the healthiest food” at the boil gatherings, she said.
If you ask the chefs who cooked at the James Beard House dinner, there is plenty of nostalgia around maple syrup.
Chef Matt Jennings of Townsman in Boston, who braised short ribs in maple syrup for the dinner and paired it with kimchi, grew up on maple syrup. His mother would use it to cook “incredible beans,” as well as chili.
He remembers getting a fresh bowl of snow and drizzling maple syrup over it, and eating it by the fire on a snow day off from school—much like what some sugar houses in the U.S. northeast or Canada serve. “They’ll serve it for dessert, just crushed ice and hot maple syrup scattered on it. It crystallizes immediately and you can eat it like candy.
“The South has sorghum and here we have maple. It runs in the bloodstream of born and bred New Englanders,” he said. “It’s underappreciated for us because it’s always on the table, in the cabinet.
“You go to other parts of the world, or even the country, and it’s not even maple syrup—it’s Aunt Jemima and Mrs. Butterworth’s and it’s not the same thing at all.”
And there’s nothing like tasting maple syrup fresh after a boil, Jennings said. “It hits you right away with those vanillins and spices and even a little heat almost at the back of your throat, which slowly starts to dissipate as it ages on the shelves.”
Tracy Obolsky, the pastry chef at Manhattan’s Cookshop, made some babas for the dinner, soaked in maple syrup, bourbon, and brown butter. If there’s one ingredient she associates with maple syrup, it’s butter.
“I would go to breakfast with my family or my mom would make pancakes, and my favorite part of pancakes … you know how there’d be that funny-looking scoop of low-quality butter on top of the pancakes and it would be drenched in maple syrup? That was my favorite part to eat—literally the chunk of butter in maple syrup. … It’s still cold and solid in the center and the maple starts to melt around it.”
At Cookshop, she uses maple syrup for granola as well as the pecan sticky bun ice cream, which will be on the brunch menu for another month or so. It has a smooth base, infused with sticky bun flavor, and maple figures in the “salted sticky swirl” designed to mimic the sticky part of the bun, “which of course is the best part,” she added.
For pastry chef Brian Mercury of Harvest in Cambridge, who came up with the idea of a dinner focused on maple syrup, it is a versatile ingredient. For the dinner, he made burnt maple ice cream. It was a challenge: whereas caramel can be tracked by a change in color, he was working with already dark maple syrup. “The third time was a charm on that one,” he said. At Harvest, he is currently working on a maple and carrot dish.
Chefs love to use maple syrup as an ingredient, but Hartell, who cooks with it a lot, said, “I prefer it straight.” She pours it on Greek yogurt, ice cream, or pancakes, where the flavor really shines. Her 5-year-old twins would concur. “They would eat it on everything if we allowed it.”
And why not? Bobo’s syrup looks a little thin at first sight (compared to those thick pseudo “maple” syrups), but it is so flavorful it blossoms on the tongue, with lighter sweet notes that grow deeper.
There’s not much time left until the end of this year’s production at Bobo’s. Warmer days create changes in the sap, making it what’s called “buddy.” “It’s this off flavor. It’s not necessarily bad, but it’s just a little different,” Hartell said.
That flavor means the end of the sugaring is near, as the sap begins to develop a viscous quality. “There’s almost a sliminess to it, it doesn’t feel like water anymore.” You couldn’t boil it, she said, “because everything gets mucked up. And that’s what it’s like for the rest of the summer.”
Bobo’s is a relatively small operation: it has 2,500 taps, about 75 percent sugar maples and 25 percent red maples. By comparison, a medium-sized operation might have 40,000 taps, and the large ones have up to 100,000 to 200,000 taps.
The other defining characteristic is that Bobo’s maple syrup comes from their own sugar bush (a maple orchard in a way of speaking, although the trees are wild grown). “You could argue it tastes like the mountain,” Hartell said.
For many maple syrup producers, sap is trucked in from different locations; a common sight these days where Hartell lives is pickup trucks with tanks of sap on the back.
And unlike large producers who use heating oil for fuel, Hartell and Chalmers made the decision to use local hardwood—much as it was done in the past. “If something goes wrong, we have this huge fire. Things can go wrong in a hurry; you have to be mindful of how and where everything is going.
“But,” she added. “It’s a cool thing. We enjoy it.”
Bobo’s Mountain Sugar can be ordered online and in NYC at Foragers Market, Foster Sundry, and Hudson Market.