Grade A syrup is kind you can see through, though dark has its purposes
Ships at sea keep logs, cow-barn breeding keeps a log, the Starship Enterprise kept a log, my sugarbarn keeps a log. Sugarbarn Log 2015 (sorry a year behind).
Tapped yesterday, tying with the latest date ever in four decades of tapping maple. The last time we tapped on 27 March was 2005, resulting in a single run of five gallons of syrup. 2012 was also a single run, 3-1/2 gallons. The grove runs some 100 trees, mostly soft maple, SE SW 1/4, Section 2, Range 8E, the site still known as Whittaker’s woods, he of the Civil War. Seems he is better remembered by the landscape than the cemetery. The long-term average of this sugar bush is 20 gallons of syrup, if to think climate change may be altering that.
The red maple does not possess the sugar content of the hard maple, reds break dormancy earlier, to the end the sap boils to darker syrup and more likely to include long molecular starches, components that when heated also darken the syrup.
This process in bulk called the Maillard Reaction, a complex response to heat by proteins, fats, starches, sugars … where they not only turn brown but gain taste and aroma flavors … the science called cooking. It is that at the sugar barn we cook tree pee, this as my granddaughter calls it.
2015 was a banner year for maple syrup not because the run was particularly good, four boils, but that the Great Overlord of agriculture has seen fit to “legalize” the batch method.
Previously, the dark or more negatively-termed, “black” syrups were judged inferior and disallowed from legal sale. Never mind they were sold, technically they were illegal.
They are now legal, these batch method syrups after the Indian method, and what the Warner sugarbush produced when Field’s Island was yet part of mainland Portage County; the site Hathaway noted as “Menominee Sugarbush.”
To confess, I save the dark syrup of the last boil for my own house and to give away or sell the syrup with the higher sugar content. My comparison here is the Miami Beach drink with a toy umbrella to some Scots’ whistle like Glen Fiddich. Akin to the difference between bare knuckles and gloves, a Pontiac and a Porsche, electric heat and a wood fire, trousers and a kilt, a kiss and a kiss.
Fran Hamerstrom pounded me into her kitchen floor one spring night by feeding this innocent farmboy two of her Fred’s famously generous martinis. To admit, I was spell-bound by Fran because Fran didn’t exactly keep house according to Hoyle, rather just let her house off the leash. Despite her evident social registry, Fran kept the house like a good proper farm wife who has more important things to do. Fran Hamerstrom was cluttered.
If to give Fran her due, this now some years since her death, I would more generously describe her farmhouse west of Plainfield as having “habitat.” Precisely the kind most modern homes don’t attain; there was not a corner or nook that didn’t secret some interesting thing to look at or to talk about; specimens, bat scat, owl scat, books, maps, bird studies, feathers, stones, artifacts, dry ferns.
My grandfather on my mama’s side tended house in this same off-the-leash, semi-domestic casual way. Where you could sit in any chair in that house, close your eyes while reaching blindly to either side and come up with something to read; from Hoard’s Dairyman to Reader’s Digest, Coronet, Ladies Home Journal, Wisconsin Farmer, Prairie Farmer, the Agriculturist.
As a kid, I thought there was something abiding and nourishing about this, if to remind me of what a good soil profile is supposed to look like. That same crowded-with-stuff, a good gumbo comes to mind, a house you could practice archeology on. When my grandfather died, I thought we should embalm the house to remember what a real farmhouse looked like.
As brings me to maple syrup and what it is supposed to taste like. The former USDA Grade A standard for maple syrup was standard color, standard taste, nice if a trifle too sweet.
Less likely red-maple syrup, certainly not late season syrup, not sap as had known moth-wing and drowned mouse. To admit the last boil doesn’t smell very good on its way to syrup, initially resembling wallpaper paste as puts some folks way off. About mid-boil the off-smell goes away.
My wife finishes syrup at the house to gain precise specific gravity, and where the last batch distinguishes itself from the rest. The color isn’t pale amber, isn’t medium amber, harness polish comes to mind, creosote, maybe what a wholesome loam should look like.
Grade A syrup is the kind you can see through; last-batch is the jar with a million suns equivalent black hole captured inside, if you look close at that mason jar it too will bend light and suck the light out of the room.
USDA standards for maple syrup have changed, Grade A still has all the niter sands removed, still thought the right thing. When our children were young we bought a set of rubber sugar molds and let them make sugar the Indian way, straight in, no filtering the niters.
The resulting sugar was spectacular, a very native taste, to think adult applies. The birch bark “mokuks” sold by local Indians at hay-market days in Stevens Point and Plover tasted like this.
That when sugar was like a gift of the gods to have on pancakes at the local stage house when new spring arrived, when farmers brought to town their beloved batch. Indian sugar once had an invigorating effect on the community, a visceral tonic was sugar season, at least among Methodists where the wee glass was denied.
To pick up on Fran … she let me doze off awhile until the knockout wave of two martinis passed, and then we could again talk like decent folk, to realize how much I didn’t know about prairie chickens. I did confess to Fran I had as a member of the Rattlesnake Patrol once eaten prairie chicken pie. She laughed and said she had tried prairie chicken herself. Quite different, she mused, from Leghorn.
Food is like that. I like baked potatoes that have sprouted, the skin is crisp with a nutty flavor. But people don’t have winter potato bins any more where potatoes sprout with their utter enthusiasm for spring, naked as Persephone … my grandfather at spring took … we’ll go there another time.
There is an Ojibwa blessing that goes something like “sâgibimagisi mitig;” may your tree have new shoots. As an Easter message, that will do.