MATV’s Anne D’Urso-Rose reflects on the making of maple syrup at her home in Malden.
Plastic Poland Spring bottles on a tree in urban Malden—not so much.
But at my house at 90 Bowers Ave., you’ll see them every few years. My husband, Steve Rose, lovingly pursues the craft in intervals long enough to forget just how much work it is to make even a small amount of maple syrup.
The process is simpler than one might think. All you really need is a maple tree and a place to boil the sap. Since the process takes so long, it’s pretty impractical to do all the boiling inside, so an outdoor fire pit really helps. Of course, you need enough fuel to keep the fire going—for days. Yes, it takes days.
Fuel, in the form of pine tree branches and logs, we had in spades this year. Which is why Steve made more syrup than he ever did before—about three quarters of a gallon. During Hurricane Sandy two falls ago, an enormous pine tree –taller than our two-story house—fell to the ground. Rather than have it professionally hauled away, my resourceful husband created a huge fire circle in our backyard made from the trunk of the pine tree. About 14 people can sit comfortably on naturally-varnished logs around a fire pit exactly where a tall pine tree once stood.
And with the leftover branches and logs, voila! Fuel for the fire.
So, back to the maple syruping process. The one purchase you’d want to make is these little metal taps (called spiles) that go into the trees. These can be had through Amazon for about $25 a 4-pack and they last forever. No need for metal buckets. Plastic spring water jugs work just as well. Steve cuts a hole in the handle of the jug inserts the tap in the jug, drills a hole in the tree, and places the contraption on the tree. If it’s the right time of year, the sap will flow out of the hole just as soon as you drill into the tree. And, no, don’t worry, it doesn’t hurt the tree.
When is the right time of year? In order for the sap to flow, you need the temperature to go below freezing at night and above freezing during the day. In the Boston area, this typically happens in mid-February into early March, basically for a few weeks during the year. You can get a lot of sap from one tree. We tapped two of our trees and gathered about 30 gallons, and we definitely could have gathered more.
You need a cold place to store the sap which can be tricky for the average urban homeowner. We filled just about every container we could find and stored it in our shed and in a second fridge in our home. Steve started boiling the sap right away to keep up with the storage issue.
Now, a word about sap. It looks just like pure water when it comes out of the tree. But, if you taste it, you’ll detect just a hint of sweetness. You can drink it right from the tree. It’s pure, natural stuff. We had “sap on tap” to offer friends who came over during the boiling process. And our dog, Sammy, would enjoy a bowl now and then. (Hey, we had a lot to spare.)
It takes 40 gallons of sap to boil down into one just gallon of syrup. The sugar concentrates as you boil it and the liquid evaporates, so you are just left with the syrup. That’s the recipe in a nutshell! We recently read an article that “maple water” is becoming the next big trend—kind of like coconut water is now. If only we knew! Maybe next year, we’ll just stick to the maple water. It’s more commercially viable. (Just kidding, commercial was NOT what we were going for.)
To boil, Steve used two big metal pots—which can be obtained at the local dollar store for, well more than a dollar, but not very much. One pot was the main boiling pot into which ALL the sap would eventually be boiled down. The other pot served as the server pot, heating up the next batch of sap to be boiled, so he wasn’t pouring cold sap into the boiling batch. Next is the part that’s not very interesting. The days were cold and miserable when he first started boiling, so inviting people over to sit around the fire was not enticing. Steve doggedly trudged from the house to the fire to feed it over the long hours of boiling it down. When we finally got a day warm enough, we invited friends to keep him company. Toasting marshmallows and making s’mores made the process a whole lot more fun. And our visit from the Mayor was definitely a high point.
When the sap turned a rich caramel color and started tasting really sweet—but was still too liquidy to be called syrup—Steve finished the process off in our two crockpots in the comfort of our kitchen. There’s a lot of straining through a cheesecloth that needs to take place to remove some residue that tends to creep in there.
At some point, you know it’s syrup, though it’s pretty tricky to find that balance. You have to let it cool to really see how thick it is. Thinner syrup can be used for cooking, while you usually want the thicker stuff to pour on pancakes.
Keep in mind that the stuff you buy in stores called “breakfast syrup” (Aunt Jemima and the like) contains no actual syrup from a maple tree. Real maple syrup costs at least $13 a quart, oftentimes more. Once you make maple syrup yourself and calculate the time and labor, you realize why.
There’s absolutely no practical reason to make maple syrup at home. So why do it? My husband, Steve, who grew up in the Berkshires, remembers making it with his family from their two maple trees. I formally asked him the question “why” for this article and, after some time, he came up with this answer: “Tradition, a love of the outdoors, and a love for maple syrup.”
But I didn’t really need to ask him why. It’s the same reason we now have a circle of beautifully varnished logs where a tall pine tree once stood. It’s about his connection to the tree. It’s about what the maple tree—or any tree—has to offer, whether it be shade, a place to climb, or just a chance to appreciate its natural beauty. And for anyone who loves and appreciates trees, that can be true anywhere, whether you’re in the forest, rural New England or in an urban area like Malden.