Tapping the Sweet Stuff
Above: Mr. Amell with a sampling his harvest, and sap straight from the tree - at this stage it looks and tastes much like water.
It takes an average of
40 gallons of sap to make
one gallon of maple syrup.
• Maine Maple Sunday is held the fourth Sunday in March. Local farmers and sugar shacks open their doors for demonstrations and free tastings: syrup drizzled over snow, shaved ice, and pancakes.
When the sap is flowing, a broken branch may release sap that freezes as it drips. Icicles form and hang from the tree.
I spotted three sapcicles this spring. Oh, if only I could reach one.
• Squirrels will tap for sap by gouging a hole in the tree bark then drinking and licking the sap that flows from the tree.
• A tablespoon of maple syrup has just about 50 calories and is cholesterol free.
WE STARTED with five brand-new buckets, drilling a 1/2" hole in the side of each, an inch or so below the rim. When I asked my guide, Peter Amell, if he gets new buckets and taps each year, his reply spoke to the essence of the region where so much maple syrup is harvested.
"Why no," he said, "that wouldn't be the Yankee way."
Mr. Amell lives in Maine and has been tapping the maple trees that line his property for well over ten years.
The day of my first visit we enjoyed above freezing temperatures and a warming sun. It was early March and the sap, a bit late, was just beginning to flow. Sap flows best when the days are warm and nights are cold.
Single file, we trudged through the snow-covered yard to the first of five maples. Mr. Amell drilled a hole in the side of the tree then pushed (and tapped) a plastic spile into the hole—and the sap was flowing—drip, drip, dripping, like water from a leaky faucet. And, like water, the sap comes from the tree clear and colorless.
Mr. Amell then hammered a nail below the spile, hung a bucket on it, fitted one end of a 10" clear hose to the spile and threaded the other into the side of the bucket (through the hole he drilled earlier), and set a lid on it.
Depending on how well the sap is flowing, the buckets may fill overnight or over the course of a few days. We must wait.
When I return the following week, Mr. Amell (who had collected and replaced more than 10 buckets of sap over six days) stands obscured behind billows of steam rising from the two pots of sap he set to boil. In boiling and reducing the sap, it takes nearly 40 gallons to produce just one gallon of syrup.
Mr. Amell offers a taste of the raw sap straight from the tree and I am surprised by its purity. At this stage, it's very much like drinking a glass of water. It is only in the steam wafting from the pots that I catch the faint smell of maple.
As it reduces, the sap takes on a golden hue and becomes thick enough to coat a spoon, though not thick enough to be labeled syrup. So Mr. Amell is patient, boiling and reducing the sap, routinely analyzing the color and viscosity of the ambrosia he so carefully tends.
It's when I return again the following week that Mr. Amell offers me a taste of syrup . . . a thick, sweet amber syrup . . . and it is delicious.