Apologies to the good people of Punxutawney, Pennsylvania, and their famous groundhog, but there's no better harbinger of Spring than the appearance of sap buckets dangling from the sugar maples in our town cemetery.
All over New England, soon after the trees are tapped in February and March, the sugaring houses begin the alchemy of turning the sap into maple syrup. The season when the most flavorful sap "runs" from the trees is short, only 4-6 weeks, and sap tapped at different points during that season will result in different depths of flavor.
The USDA grades maple syrup into four categories:
- Grade A Light Amber, very light in color, mild, delicate maple flavor; usually made earlier in the season when the weather is colder. Best for making maple candy and maple cream.
- Grade A Medium Amber, a bit darker, more maple flavor. The most popular grade of table syrup, usually made after the sugaring season begins to warm, in mid-season.
- Grade A Dark Amber (which used to be called Grade B), very dark, with a stronger maple flavor; usually made later in the season as the days get longer and warmer.
- Grade B (formerly Grade C), sometimes called cooking syrup, made late in the season, very dark, with a very strong maple and caramel flavor; often used for cooking and baking.
All maple syrup is made the same way: the sap is boiled to reduce the water content and concentrate the sugar to approximately 60 percent. This process, relatively unchanged over more than two hundred years, originated in Canada with the First Nations peoples (North American Indians), who would make a gash in the tree, and then fashion a funnel out of bark to extract the sap. The water content would be reduced in one of two ways: by plunging hot stones into the sap, or by freezing the sap overnight and removing the layer of ice from the surface the next morning.
Settlers in the American colonies relied on maple syrup as an inexpensive sweetener, because sugar imported from the West Indies was a costly commodity. As production took hold in the southern United States, and transportation routes opened, the price of sugar began to drop, and sugar overtook maple syrup as the sweetener of choice.
Some tidbits about maple syrup:
- If you've never tasted maple syrup, think of it this way: it has the sweetness of agave nectar, the color of molasses, the consistency of fresh honey, and the taste of all three combined.
- All of the world's supply of maple syrup comes from North America; Canada produces more than 75 percent, followed by Vermont and New York State. The town cemetery in Chepachet, Rhode Island, contributes an infinitessimal amount to the total world production.
- It takes approximately 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup, which accounts for the high price. Our town's only sugaring house, at Chepachet Farms, welcomes lots of school groups, so the farmer has strung 40 empty one-gallon milk jugs around the inside of the ceiling to illustrate how much sap it takes to make one gallon of syrup.
- Aunt Jemima does not make maple syrup; available in supermarkets everywhere, this artificial product lists corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup as the main ingredients.
- Maple syrup can be stored in sealed containers on the pantry shelf; once opened, the syrup must be refrigerated. You can freeze it, but defrost before using.
- The trace minerals manganese and zinc, both present in maple syrup, are essential for heart health; zinc also provides known benefits to the health of the prostate.
Yes, we would, but none would taste quite as good as they do when made with pure maple syrup from your very own town cemetery.
Here in the part of Rhode Island known as Apple Valley, we also have wonderful pears from the local orchards. This simple, yet elegant, dessert serves 4; can be multiplied.
Zest of 1 lemon
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1/4 cup pure maple syrup
2 Tbsp sugar
1 Tbsp butter
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
Peel the pears and, from the bottom, remove the cores, leaving the stems on. Place in a nonreactive pot with lemon zest, lemon juice, and maple syrup, plus enough water to cover. Bring to a simmer and cook over low heat until tender when pierced with a knife. Allow pears to cool in the poaching liquid. (This can be done several hours ahead.) Remove pears to serving plates, and bring the liquid to a boil. Stir in sugar, butter and vanilla, and reduce the sauce to desired consistency. Drizzle the sauce over and around pears, and serve.
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