Don’t you love the way the cold temperatures of winter give you permission to enjoy all of your favorite comfort foods? Turkey dinners, homemade cookies, big bowls of pasta and pancakes…always pancakes on a cold winter morning!!! It was over homemade pancakes one Sunday where the question was raised, “does maple syrup REALLY come from maple trees?” Being the “teacher mom” I am, I immediately took the opportunity to answer this question with an adventure. That is how we happened upon the age-old tradition of “maple sugaring.”
The production of syrup and sugar from the sap of maple trees is the oldest known industry in America. Maple sugaring occurs in the late winter when the nights are still below freezing but the days are warmer. Native Americans from New England to Canada tapped maple trees for the sweet sap as far back as the 1600’s. When the colonists arrived, they learned of this sweet treat from the Native Americans and over the years developed methods of tapping without damaging the trees. Their skills evolved into thriving industry and also heralded the traditions of maple sugaring festivals, which usually signal the first signs of spring.
We decided to investigate this phenomenon at the Great Swamp Outdoor Education Center in Chatham, NJ. This delightful little nature center not only provides many hands-on experiences for children, but it is also surrounded by a series of trails, all of which are short enough for the youngest hikers in the family. Having explored the nature center before, we knew we were in for a unique learning experience.
Upon arriving, we joined other nature lovers in the indoor classroom of the nature center. Here we learned that sugar maples, red maples and Norway maples are the best sources for making maple syrup. We learned how to identify these tress and that a tree must be at least ten inches in diameter and a height of 4 ½ feet off the ground in order to take one tap. As the excitement in the room built we bundled up for our journey into the woods to both identity and tap some great maple trees.
Through the snow, we trekked as our guide challenged us to use our new knowledge to properly identify the trees. She described a variety of ways our ancestors had collected sap and then provided a metal spile to a volunteer as she instructed him on the proper way to tap the tree. As we looked on, I had several revelations. First, this was not a quick process. The sap drips slowly and it takes about 4 gallons of sap to produce 1 gallon of syrup! Second, I was COLD! Although I was wearing several layers of clothing, hat, scarf and boots, I began to realize that our ancestors were clearly much tougher than this twenty-first century mama! I was thrilled to hear the guide say that we were heading to the “sugar house” and that this part of the tour included a roaring fire!
The sugar house at the nature center is an outdoor structure where the sap is boiled over an open flame until it begins to chemically change into thick syrup. Again, this is a time consuming and labor intensive job but the end product is worth the toil!
Our adventure concluded as we headed back into he warmth of the nature center. Here we were invited to taste and rank a few types of syrup. The crowd enthusiastically used crackers to dip, sample and score their favorites. We learned that syrup is graded by both color and flavor and it is a personal choice as to which grade is the absolute best. As the participants revealed their top picks it was interesting to find that many had chosen maple flavored corn syrup as their number one! Yes, it seems that the syrup most of us purchase and use is merely a less expensive imposter to the real deal! My own personal opinion is that if you have not tried the real thing, it is worth the extra pennies. Pure maple syrup is a highly prized treat!
*Check this out at the Great Swamp Educational Center, 247 Southern Blvd. in Chatham on February 25 and February 26. The tours run from 1-2pm and 2:30-3:30pm. The cost is $3 per person for anyone over 3 years old. More information can be found at morrisparks.net or by calling 973-635-6629.