Sunday, March 23, 2008

Maple Syrup: Thrill of the Thaw

maple bottles2 copy March generally arrives in the nick of time: last year’s gallon of syrup is about gone, or may in fact have failed to make it to the next year’s production, forcing purchase at the store of a foreign (gasp!) product. Foreign state, usually—New Hampshire, Vermont (the largest producer in the country), Massachusetts, New York—but sometimes foreign country—Canada. If you knew how many my syrup’s-better-than-your-syrup joustings I’ve had with friends from other syrup-producing areas, you’d know just how fiercely loyal maple syrup fanciers are. In the realm of food, only corn and tomatoes spark similarly hot inter-state rivalry.
In the course of these arguments, I’ve been party to a number of side-by-side maple syrup comparisons. And I can say with confidence, if not particular helpfulness: they are all different. Weather, geography, local style preferences, and the economic incentives of and care taken by the farmer in the boiling process are all variables in a syrup’s sweetness, lightness, clarity, and overall quality. The syrup from the same farm will also vary from year to year.
Sugaring season lasts about six weeks, beginning usually in late February or early March, when the warmth of the sun on the trees causes the sap to run during the day, halting again at night as temperatures drop . The sap’s natural sweetness, ranging from about 1-4% (with a minimum of about 2% needed for syrup), is sucrose; the unique flavor comes from trace enzymes in the sap. Maple syrup is a completely pure, natural product; it is just boiled sap, with nothing added, until most of its water content has evaporated and its sugar concentrates to a density of nearly 70%. It is then strained, graded, and packed into glass, tin, or—increasingly—plastic (if you buy a large quantity or use your syrup slowly, I recommend freezing it and, if possible, transferring it into glass). These methods have barely changed since Native Americans first introduced this wonderful sweetener to the settlers. If you have your own sugar bush (group of sugar maple trees), you can even make your own. maple grades2
Maple syrup is a unique product requiring a good ten gallons of sap to make a single generous quart of syrup—the yield of about one tree for the entire season--and therefore commands a premium price according to grade. The grades have changed in recent years, and I still find it a bit confusing, to say nothing of silly. Ours used to be similar to Canada’s: AA (extra light or fancy), A (light) and B (medium), and so on. In the U.S., we now have three A grades: Grade A Light Amber (called Fancy in Vermont and some other areas), Grade A Medium Amber, Grade A Dark Amber, plus Grade B; the four go from light and delicate to progressively more maple-y, dark, and robust. But even here there is a mix and match; at Spring Hill Farm in Exeter, RI, where I bought my syrup this year, they also were selling “CD,” in between the dark Grades C and D, both part of the Canadian grading system. What to buy? Around here, most people use Grade B for cooking and medium or dark amber for the table. But the real criterion is to buy what your local farm has to sell; most will have B and at least dark and perhaps medium amber; this year, presumably because of weather conditions and perhaps partly because of costs, very little fancy or light grade is available. In addition to the syrup, of course, maple sap is boiled to different temperatures to make creamy maple candies, maple sugar, and maple butter or cream. Buy those too.
Sugar houses are generally open to the public to watch syrup being made; at some, you can still enjoy the traditional treats of sugar on snow (a sort of candy made by pouring hot syrup onto snow) and maple-glazed doughnuts with sour pickles. Pancake breakfasts are sometimes part of sugaring festivals or tours. A few farms still offer tours where you can ride out into the woods with the farmer on a sleigh or cart to collect the sap; I remember doing this about 20 years ago, and what a delight it was to return to the tiny, steamy sugar house with its wood-fired evaporator after driving slowly through the dark woods in the raw cold of a March afternoon. While many farms today collect sap via reverse osmosis and a pipeline, not being a Luddite (at least, not entirely) I recommend a visit to any farm that uses any method of collection; the boiling process remains virtually unchanged, and its miraculous product is well worth the trip—not the least reason of which is to support the producers.maple syrup2 copy
Use your fresh-made maple syrup in anything where you would use regular sugar, and particularly where you would use brown sugar or molasses: in baked beans, gingerbread and other spicy breads and cookies, as a sweetener for hot cereals or bread or rice pudding, in a glaze for doughnuts or coffeecakes. Of course, maple syrup is probably at its most sublime simply poured over your best sour milk pancakes or jonnycakes, where its light, fluid sweetness serves to set off their tangy edge. Indeed, wherever you have acidity, such as a salad dressing, maple goes well. That’s what first led me to use it when mixing up a batch of homemade whiskey sours. The syrup substitutes for simple syrup, minimizing effort at cocktail time . Which is, after all, one of the main points of cocktail time.
Maple Whiskey Sour
This favorite of my father’s is well worth reviving. You can experiment with substituting any number of sweet syrups for simple syrup made of sugar and water. For example, I also use my rose-hip syrup to make whiskey sours with wonderful results. Makes 2.
3 oz. blended whiskey (my father used Seagram’s V.O., and so do I)
3 oz. freshly squeezed lime juice, or half lemon, half lime
2 ½ oz. maple syrup, preferably dark amber
lime slices (orange is traditional) and stem-on maraschino cherries for garnish
In a cocktail shaker, place 4 large ice cubes, the whiskey, juice, and syrup; shake vigorously, for about a minute. Strain into a sour glass or into a rocks glass over ice. Garnish. A proper whiskey sour should have a small frothy head to it.

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