The following article first appeared in The Echo of Cantley Volume 25 no 8, March 2014. This article is made available for the enjoyment of others with the express permission of the Echo of Cantley.
We are fortunate to have an abundance of the one type of tree (the maple) and the one type of climate (cold) that will enable us to produce the most perfect of all foods - maple syrup (and all its wonderful forms: candy, taffy, butter and sugar...).
First Nations (and the famous botanist Marie Victorin) talked of watching squirrels licking wounds left by broken maple branches as the first indication that "maple water" may be sweeter than others. Historical records of the early explorers of the 17th and 18th centuries frequently mention maple syrup production by First Nation people. Eventually, by the 19th century the Europeans incorporated the practice and began to transform it with buckets, spiles and wood fired evaporators.
About 85% of the world's maple syrup is produced in Canada and about 90% of Canada's supply comes from Québec! There are about 10,000 registered maple syrup "Producers" in Québec with the Féderation des producteurs acéricoles du Québec - the marketing board that purchases and bulk sells to the domestic and international market. Production in the maple syrup industry is generally measure in the number of taps with most official "Producers" having at least (wait for this) 10,000 taps.
Then there is Cantley version of a "Producer" - I am one of them with a grand total of 15 taps. Yet I know that I share this hobby with hundreds of others. What a wonderful way to celebrate our heritage, to connect with nature, to celebrate the return of Spring and to pretend, in a limited way to "live off the land". And the friends you will make when that sap is boiling away! Incredible!
The biology of all this is well known but at the same time a little mysterious. We use maple trees because they have the sweetest, best tasting sap. Any species of maple will do but sugar maple (Acer saccharum) and black maple (Acer nigrum) have the sweetest sap (at 2%-3% sugar). Sugars manufactured by the leaves of the tree the summer before (remember your biology class) are sent to the roots for storage. With the longer days and higher temperatures of Spring, the tree calls on these sugar reserves to initiate bud expansion and hence a new set of leaves. When we tap the maple tree, we are technically tapping the "xylem" of the tree - withdrawing approximately 7% of the total sap. Maple trees can be tapped at about 40 years old and will yield sap well into their 200th year with no long-term damage to the tree. Tapping is traditionally done by drilling a 7/16 inch hole about 5 cm (2 inches) deep in trees at least 25 cm (10 inches) in diameter. The number of taps/tree increases with the diameter with really big trees (63 cm diameter or 25 inches) taking four taps. Traditionally a bucket with a lid is hung from a spile that is driven into the hole. From there the magic begins! A well drilled tap in a sugar maple tree can easily yield one litre of finished syrup during the season.
But this is not without a huge amount of collecting and boiling...Because the sap can spoil on warm days, the sap has to be collected daily and either kept cold or sent to the evaporator. The ratio of sap to finished syrup is about 40:1, so the amount of boiling is tremendous!
Maple sap becomes maple syrup when the sugar density is 66.7 degree Brix (the measure of sugar content) or when the boiling point is 4oC above that of boiling water.
Today, there are many technological innovations for serious producers such as pipeline systems and reverse osmosis. But for us the "Cantley Producers" the bucket and boil method (by wood fire or propane) will probably always prevail. Besides, what a great way to connect with our historical traditions. So enjoy the welcome of Spring by visiting a sugar bush with your friends or workmates, buying maple products and trying to produce maple syrup, the nectar of the Gods on your own land and feel proud to be a Cantleyan/Québécois/Canadian!
Michael Rosen is the Vice-Chair of Cantley 1889 and President of Tree Canada.