If nothing else, spring in New England is dramatic. Every day shoots are springing up, early color in the form of crocuses, daffodils, forsythia and hyacinth unfurls, greens and herbs wake up, trees bud; the air almost hums with a constant sense of growing. And if it's days of gray rain that make it all happen, well, what else were you going to complain about with neighbors at the bus stop?
first up, crocuses from my garden
Past the observations of pure joy at the flowers coming up and the promise of fresh produce returning to cold New England, it's the trees I keep my eyes on. Though I'd be happy enough living in a hammock beachside with only palms for company, something in me would be at a loss without the four season cycle of trees. They're majestic, mysterious, beautiful and so variable: pale green and flowering in the spring, rustling deep and cool in summer, a canopy of flame and gold in fall, seemingly barren and skeletal in winter.
early spring on Lake Champlain at Darramont
But it is not just an outward cycle that trees undergo. There is a seasonal cycle inside trees as well. In fact, it is the internal workings that cause the external drama, and it is in these early days of spring, while temperatures flirt around freezing, that many people take a particular interest in the interior life of maple trees. It's what is known as "sugar weather."
checking the buckets, two or three per tree
On a recent weekend in the midst of the sugaring season, some friends and I headed up to Vermont to learn a little more about this ritual time of sugaring when the maple sap is collected to make that most delicious of syrups. At the edge of Lake Champlain we were hosted by the wonderful Felicia and MaryEllen at their home, Darramont. Right after hugs of greeting, they loaded us with 5 gallon buckets (re-purposed from their original task of holding bulk Soy Boy Tofu) and sent us out to collect sap from the trees.
a drop of sap at the tap
At the sugaring time, each maple is tapped and outfitted with a little bucket. Roaming up the hills of Vermont out to Darramont, the forests sparkled everywhere with bright spring sun bouncing off shining metal buckets. At Darramont there were about 20 trees to visit in the cold morning, each dripping slowly into their buckets.
ice block from the sap bucket
My first surprise was that the sap was clear. When I think of maple syrup, I imagine an array of amber colors and when I think of sap I think of sticky, thick, dark resinous stuff, so it was a shock to watch the little drops of sap ping into the buckets, clear as water. The second surprise was the ice. Huge round blocks in each bucket represented the water content that had frozen while the other material in the sap remained behind. We chucked the weighty rounds into the woods and then licked our fingers, which led to the greatest of the surprises, the taste. If I hadn't had it straight from the tree, I would have never believed it had come from a maple. It tasted for all the world like coconut water: pure, clean, light and refreshing with only a sense of the possibility of sweetness, not sweetness itself. I wondered then why maple water is not on the market. It is delicious.
Mary Ellen strains sap and boils it down on the syrup stove, Josh, Sari and Felicia collect from trees and pour sap off
And if in those first moments of the work toward making maple syrup I wondered why we don't just go in for the sap, I surely wondered about it later after all the lugging of buckets and the heavy lifting to pour collected sap through a lined strainer, separating out bits of extraneous material, pouring it back into storage containers, pouring that into huge syrup pans on the stove and cooking it down for hours and hours, and then, finally, carrying it into the house to conclude the process. In short, the answer is obvious: the sap is nothing on the syrup. How anyone ever figured that out though is beyond me.
evaporation, it just takes time
It takes a lot of sap and time to make maple syrup. About 10 gallons of sap can be turned into about a quart of syrup, slowly turning from its clear, watery form into thick amber syrup. Fortunately though, the trees produce a lot of sap that may be collected without imparting harm to the it. As the morning warmed into a sunny afternoon, we sat out on the deck and listened as the sap dripped steadily into metal buckets all over the hillside.
Mary Ellen and Felicia carefully watching the syrup's temperature
Depending on when it is collected, the sap will boil down into differently colored syrups that each also have distinct flavors. Commercially these differences are designated as "grades" which always seemed like a poor choice of words to me since that designation seems to imply a distinction in quality when really, they're just different: the lighter colors usually coming from the earliest sap collected and having a delicate, mild taste while the later-season syrup is darker and more pronounced in its maple flavors. Though you can project what the syrup will look like depending on when its source sap was collected, you'll never really know until the end. The color and the flavor vary slightly year to year and batch to batch. We peered excitedly into the pot, watching as the sap really recognizably became syrup and the smell of maple, like a hundred pancake breakfasts on a hundred glorious Sunday mornings, filled the house, wondering what the final product would look like, what it would taste like, once it was finally finished.
Mary Ellen modeling an important step in the syrup process that I cannot remember!
There's been some talk about terroir, the taste of place, as it relates to maple syrup lately and I wondered if this syrup would taste differently to me than the syrup I primarily use which comes from a family friend in Western New York. Would it have a flavor imparted by the particular trees, rocks and soil of Darramont? In the end, it was a beautiful, deep gold syrup that had the butteriest, richest flavor any of us had ever experienced in a maple syrup. Maybe it was the taste of Darramont. It was light and silky, sweet, of course, but with that deep, rich element to it, playing alongside a gentle earthiness and an unusual sharp twinge of something bitter on the back of the tongue that made me love it like chocolate or coffee. It was precious. From the instant the lid went on our jar of Darramont syrup, I feared getting over the hump of " too good to use ."
left to right: grade A dark, grade A light
Luckily, we were able to load up on Vermont syrup at the Burlington, VT winter farmer's market, getting some organic grade A, dark and light syrup (note the color difference) from Green Wind Farm. In Vermont, where maple syrup is a like a birthright, we paid less for this haul of syrup than we do from our usual New York family friend source, not that it was cheap. Knowing all the effort and quantity of sap required though, it made every penny seem doubly worth it.
Back at home, the first thing I did was make waffles, hearty and textured with buckwheat flour, which honestly are my favorite--nuts to all those fluffy white flour waffles. I covered them in warm syrup. They smelled amazing. And they never made it to table. Instead, as you can see above, I was hit up by a waffle thief who intercepted them en route, striking out from a post near the toaster oven. With homemade syrup and waffles, you've just got to watch for these attacks.
spiced maple granola
Later I made something with more staying power: coating oats and puffed kamut with cashews, almonds, cocoa nibs, dried figs and dates, cinnamon and nutmeg with as much Darramont syrup as I could stand parting with. I baked the granola until golden brown and have been enjoying it over unsweetened soy yogurt ever since.
maple hot cross buns
And here's a great way for you to enjoy the early spring with a twist on a traditional and seasonal treat: maple hot crossed buns. I put the Green Wind Farms syrup to use for these so I could save the remaining Darramont. Using a lighter syrup made for a subtle maple flavor that complements these buns well, pairing nicely with the spices that somehow seem just right for this moment, a friendly wave goodbye to winter and happy welcome to spring with all its delicious promise coming back to life.
Maple Hot Cross Buns makes 16
2 tablespoons/1 ounce dried yeast 1 cup unsweetened soy milk (Vitasoy), warmed to approx. 110 degrees 1/3 cup canola oil 1/4 cup grade A maple syrup 1 tablespoon sea salt 2 3/4 cup unbleached all purpose flour 1 teaspoon cinnamon 1/2-3/4 teaspoon fresh ground nutmeg pinch of ground cloves 3/4 cup dried currants zest of one organic lemon maple syrup for brushing
Dissolve the yeast in warm soy milk. Stir in oil, syrup and salt. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. Pour the liquid mixture over the flour and work it in, kneading about 10 minutes or until smooth and cohesive. Place dough in clean, lightly oiled bowl. Cover and allow to rise until doubled, about an hour.
Remove dough from the bowl and turn out onto a clean, lightly floured surface. Knead in the currants and lemon zest. Let dough rest on surface, covered lightly with a towel for about 10 minutes to allow gluten to relax.
Roll the dough out into a thick snake about 20 inches long. With a bench scraper or knife, cut the dough into 16 equal portions. Roll each piece gently into a ball. In a light oiled 9x9 pan, arrange the dough balls in rows. Cover pan with a cloth and allow dough to rise again, until doubled again in volume.
Brush the tops of the buns with maple syrup. Place buns in a 400 degree oven for 20 minutes. If desired, pipe a frosting or cream cross on top of the slightly cooled buns (I like them with almond-flavored cream cheese frosting).