Maple trees, Winter, Spring, Summer and FallMaple syrup, made from maple water from the Maple tree. We don't really think about. As Canadians we have been brought up with Maple Syrup and learned early in school how "syruping" is done. I don't ever recall being told why there is sugar in the maple water.
It seems that each fall, the tree produces its own supply of starch to act as an anti-freeze for the roots in winter. With the melting of snow, water enters the roots and begins the circulation of 'sugar water' through the tree in preparation for the growing season. As a result, sap runs in fits and starts from the first spring thaw until the buds turn into leaves from mid-March until April.
Native Americans were well aware of the sweet nature of sap from trees such as maple and birch. An Algonquin legend states that a chief struck a tree with his axe one day. His wife saw the tree wound dripping sap, collected it in a wooden bowl and used the sap to boil meat for dinner. They were amazed at the sweetness of the meat and learned that they could boil down the sap to make sugar. The process of sugar making was long and arduous and improved after the arrival of Europeans, who introduced Native Americans to iron pots.
A maple tree must be at least a foot (30 cm) in diameter (about 40 years old) before it can first be tapped. Tapping if done properly doesn’t hurt the tree, many trees have been tapped for 100 years or more. Taping will draw about 10% of the tree’s total sap production. A small hole is drilled into the tree and a spile (spout) inserted. In small operations a bucket is hung from the spile, in larger operations tubing is attached to the end of the spile. On a good day, the sap flow will be at a rate of about 175 drops per minute in the morning, slowing down to 10 drops per minute in the afternoon.
Maple water is transformed into maple syrup in a sugarhouse, or "sugar shack." The finest syrups can only be made from fresh, clean sap. The collected sap is boiled down into syrup.
The "boiling down" process is slow - sometimes continuing far into the night. When I lived up in Muskoka a few of my friends collected the maple water for boiling in to syrup every year. Many nights we sat around the out door fire pit with the iron pot hanging above, boiling down the Maple water. Evaporation that is too slow or too fast will affect the color, flavor and texture of the syrup. The flames were slowly fed throughout the night.
Maple syrup is divided into three grades based on colour; light, medium and dark. The light is officially the best grade, although the medium and dark grades generally have a stronger maple flavour. Part of the reason for the grading is to avoid confusion with the end of season syrup, which is darker with more of a caramel flavour. The end of the season is signaled by the budding of the maple trees. Chemicals introduced into the sap by the tree to induce budding produce an off-flavour in the sap. It signals that the sap run is over and spring has truly arrived.