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The HISTORY OF OUR TASTE FOR MAPLE SYRUP
1 The Early American Experience of Maple S
The Trees Native Americans and the Origins of Maple Syrup The Arrival of the Sugar-Loving Settler The Early Maple Industry
2 Maple's Big Boom and Bust: A Century of Maple Ups and Downs, 1860–1950
Expanding the Maple Producer's Marketplace Advances in Maple Technology Adulterations and Imitations Sugar-Loving Policies and Prices Changing of the Maple Guard A Newfound Respect for Regional Cuisine
3 The Renaissance of Forests and Maple Syrup Makers, 1970–Present
New Technologies New Producers in the New Hudson Valley Ensuring a Sustainable Maple Supply
The Early American Experience of Maple Syrup
Much of what we experience of maple syrup today remains untouched by time and history. This is true not only of the maple landscape itself, but also of the processes for producing maple syrup. These have remained largely intact — a true rarity in our modern food landscape. While we've found new ways to produce almost every kind of food product in America, from tomatoes to fish to chickens to wheat, the maple tree remains unique in continuing to need the same basic conditions to produce syrup.
There are several species of maple trees, but the king of all of these is the sugar maple (Acer saccharum), and it is the type most frequently used for maple syrup production. Sugarbushes (clusters of maple trees) can be found throughout New England, New York, and Pennsylvania, as well as spread across parts of the Great Lakes region and southern Canada. They reach as far south as Tennessee, and stretch to the west as far as Missouri. Each of these trees needs a good sloppy spring, with warm days that melt winter's base of snow and lightly freezing nights, to release its sap, and the syrup that results is never too far away from the taste of the tree itself. It is one of North America's most recognizable flavors and most symbolic foods, as significant to the Northeast as wild salmon is to the Pacific Northwest, pecans to the Deep South, or corn and maize to the Southwest. When I taste our maple syrup each sugar season, I know that I taste the place it's from, the time it was grown, and the many legacies of the people who have tapped it before me.
However, these trees are not limited to North America. The roots of the maple family tree (genus Acer) extend to Asia, originating in China during the Cretaceous period (over 130 million years ago). The plant spread west into Europe, and far south to the Philippines. It may have first appeared in North America by way of eastern Siberia, initially appearing on American soil in Alaska and spreading to the East Coast. Fossils tell us that the biggest boom of maple tree growth was during the Miocene epoch, about 23 to 5.3 million years ago, with hundreds of thousands of species flourishing across the world. Today there are still 124 different species of maple trees present and growing throughout the world. Thirteen of those species are native to North America — the climate that the trees require can be found throughout the Midwest and mid-Atlantic all the way up to Ontario, Quebec, and New Brunswick. There are even a few species of maple on the West Coast and in the Deep South — you can find bigleaf and Douglas maples in Washington State and Oregon, canyon maples in the Rocky Mountains and scattered throughout Texas and Oklahoma, and Florida or hammock maples running from southern Virginia to central Florida. While all maple trees can be tapped for edible sap, sugar maples are widely considered to produce the most superior flavor and quality of finished syrup.
The botany of sugar maples is fairly similar to that of other hardwood trees; like oak and willow trees, maples are deciduous, meaning that they release their leaves seasonally. (For more on the differences between sugar maples and red maples, and the different ways to spot them, see this page) Sugar maple flowers are generally wind-pollinated (rather than by bees), and produce samaras, a winged papery fruit that allows the seeds to be carried far from the tree to pollinate elsewhere. (You might recognize them as the flat paperlike propellers that catch on the wind like a helicopter blade, and are also known as spinning jennys or whirligigs.) Also like oaks and willows, maples are vascular plants, with the xylem in the tree's tissue conducting water and nutrients up and down the trunk and branches. The xylem tissues function like a complex network of tubes, connecting the water-absorbing roots of the tree and the oxygen-breathing leaves of the tree's crown. If you were to look at a cross section of a sugar maple, you would see, just under the flaking outer bark, the inner bark, or phloem, which conducts sugars from the leaves to the rest of the living cells of the tree. You would then see a layer of growing cells called the vascular cambium, which produces the xylem as it grows (creating rings of xylem as the tree grows), and then beyond that, the first ring of xylem, called the sapwood. The unique quality of the maple tree is that its sap can be accessed barely ¼ inch into the tree, yet because typically less than 10 percent of the tree's sap is being removed during each sugaring season, the tree still receives all of its necessary water and nutrients even as it is being tapped. (This is also part of the reason why maple wood is so porous and adaptable for the decorative arts, an issue we'll come to in the later part of this chapter.)
Sugar maple trees can grow as tall as 90 feet, with their canopies (or crowns) spreading as wide as 80 feet. The trees, meanwhile, could be hundreds of years old, and as wide as 50 inches in diameter. When we built our facility on our Madava estate in 2010, we sadly had to cut down one old maple that an expert dated back to around the mid-1840s. We have many other maples that we believe are much older, including a few 40-inch-diameter trees that are unfortunately on their last leg of life. I can't help but be in awe of these trees, thinking of mankind's history that their lives have spanned. The age and density of these maple tree groves, in fact, was the thing that was most distinctive for arriving settlers to the American shores. In Europe, more than 50 percent of old-growth forests had been cut down as early as the Middle Ages — imagine the astonishment of the European settlers as they approached American shores to discover huge forests of immense density and in vast abundance. These trees predated any kind of human interference, and certainly predated the industry that Natives or settlers would produce.
NATIVE AMERICANS AND THE ORIGINS OF MAPLE SYRUP
The American landscape these Europeans encountered seemed utterly wild — yet the land was far from undeveloped, and these maple reserves were not untapped. By the time Europeans began to arrive in the eastern part of North America in the late 1400s, various Native groups had established extensive agricultural practices, with sophisticated technologies and traditions of tilling and working the land to produce food. While the colonists liked to think of their new homeland as a kind of Edenic plot just waiting to be cultivated, anthropologists have identified patterns that would suggest that Natives regularly cleared the forests and undergrowth by way of deliberate burning. Plots of forests were actually cleared and defined through this process for easier crop management, leaving others pristine for hunting and scavenging. While burning woodlands might seem today to be an act of destruction, this proved to be an effective method for various tribes to create diverse habitats, both for cultivation and for preservation.
Native tribes of the Northeast, including the Iroquois of upstate New York, the Mohegan of Connecticut, the Algonquin of Ontario and Quebec, and the Micmac (Mi'kmaq) of New Brunswick, relied on creating tools for extensive agriculture to supplement the naturally plentiful wild fruit-bearing trees throughout the region. Carefully arranged interplantings of corn, squash, and beans, the "three sisters" staples of the regional diet, could be found in almost every community, oriented from east to west and formed in rows set about 3 feet apart across the hills. The mixture of these plants showed a sophisticated understanding of natural science: the bean plants converted nitrogen from the air into fuel for the corn plants, which would in turn offer a natural trellis for the beans to climb. The low-growing squash would cover the ground area between the rows of corn, preventing weeds or other errant seedlings from taking root and protecting the soil beneath them. And around these carefully plotted landscapes, especially those in the Adirondacks, there were dense thickets of trees, offering a natural supply of sap and hiding between them a regular supply of wild walnuts, berries, and greens, perfect for foraging and supplementing the Native diet.
In all of these communities spread across the Northeast, the presence of the maple tree was extraordinarily significant. Much of what we know about Native American culture and maple sugaring is muddled in myth or filtered through the accounts of European colonists who documented the sugaring experience back to the mid-1500s. We have our first accounts of North American maple trees from the French navigator Jacques Cartier in 1540, as he and the French Franciscan priest André Thévet were exploring the region adjacent to the St. Lawrence River. Accounts from settlers of the period give varying levels of credit to the Native Americans who introduced them to maple sap, expressing skepticism as to whether the Natives actually possessed the technology and know-how for turning the sap into sugar. Yet many have also noted the preexisting innovations of each tribe's mastery of agriculture, and their deep knowledge of the syrup's tradition — the language to describe the syrup existed well in advance. The Algonquin called it sinzibuckwud, "drawn from wood"; the Cree called the tree sisibaskwatattik and its syrup sisibaskwat. The Ojibwe referred to the tree as ninautik, "our own tree," a staking of a claim if there ever was one. It is likely that Native communities first discovered the secret of the maple trees from watching the surrounding animals burrow into the trees to access their sap. A broken branch, a trickle of sap, a late winter icicle that proved surprisingly sweet on the tongue — these were the likely motivations of the first maple appreciators. And so, somewhat unsurprisingly, the method for securing their sap could only have developed from a community who paid close attention to the forests.
Whatever each tribe's explanation might provide as the source, knowledge of the sweetness of the maple trees was well documented in oral tradition and storytelling — people would look with great anticipation to the Abenaki, the "sugar moon" (usually occurring during the first full moon of April or May), a day when families would gather and dance the "sugar dance" in thankfulness for the forest's generosity. (This would be the second sugar dance of the season; the first likely took place at the first tapping of the trees, a call to bring on warmer weather and to encourage the sap to flow.) The running of the maple sap was widely considered a signal of spring, a moment to celebrate the changing of the seasons and the rejuvenation of the nurturing world. The Anishinabek tribes would actually move down from their winter lodges to camp directly underneath the maple trees in early spring, so they could be ready for the first drips of sap directly from the trees. This anticipation of the season resembles the Crown Maple woods crew spending all day in the forests as the short but inevitably sweet maple season approaches.
The beginning of each year's sugaring season was long anticipated. Though women were traditionally responsible for agricultural work, tribesmen would often set aside time during the maple season to work the trees and collect the precious sap. In the middle of February, the tribe's sugar tapper would hack into a nearby maple until the blade would be wet with sap. From there, the edges of the gash in the tree would be cleaned with a knife and awl. To create an ad hoc channel for the sap to flow, a birch or sumac twig would be split and scraped out to form a gutter, then it would be wedged into place at the ax cut to direct the sap into a bucket or mocuck, a basket made from woven strips of birch bark and sealed with pine resin. The sap collected would hardly be the sweet syrup we are able to prepare today — if enjoyed raw, it might barely register as more than a slightly sweet sugar-water, but plenty of Natives and early settlers enjoyed it without boiling it down, and incorporated it into almost every meal. Behold, America's first condiment.
The origin stories for maple syrup — which vary with each tribe — mix earthly miracles and divine forces, often incorporating a Creator figure such as Nanabozho (Ojibwe tradition), Glooscap (the Wabanaki), or Wisakedjak (Cree). It seems only appropriate that the story of maple syrup would require a divine explanation — how else could you explain the tree's annual gift of sweet water?
One Iroquois legend starts with an unconscious axe swing: Woksis, the leader of the tribe, killed a deer for the following day's meal, and then threw his axe into the trunk of a maple tree. Overnight, the sap from the gash in the tree dripped into his wife's cooking pot, and seeing it full of what she thought was water, she proceeded to simmer the venison in the pot. Soon she saw that the meat had become coated in a thick, brown syrup, and she became fearful of her husband's distaste. Upon seeing the meal, he initially scolded her, but once he took a bite of the sweetly barbecued meat, he could not help but smile with delight.
The Ottawa and Chippewa version of the story suggests that the hero Nanabozho was traveling across the land when he came upon a village that appeared abandoned. He kept looking and soon found the people lying underneath the maples, their mouths wide open, waiting to drink the syrup trickling from the trees. Disgusted at the laziness of the villagers, Nanabozho filled the trees with a lake's worth of water, diluting the syrup. From then on the people would have to boil the sap to obtain their sugar; no matter how natural the source, the work would still have to be done to transform it into something spectacular.
The Lenape believed that the maple tree was the most beautiful tree in existence. One night, bugs crawled into the maple tree's bark, and the maple tree began to itch. The tree was much too large to scratch its own itch, so it called out to the forest for help. The beaver replied, "I can help you, but if I scratch you with my teeth, I will probably kill you." The mouse said, "I can dig into your roots, but I may kill them, and so you." The bear said, "I have big claws to scratch down your bark, but that will tear you up." Then a woodpecker flew by. "I can help you," she said, "for though my beak is sharp, I cannot dig all the way into your bark." All the woodpeckers of the forest started pecking at the tree, and soon the bugs were gone and the maple tree was delighted. A few years after that itchy night, there was very little rain in the forest, and the creeks and rivers dried up. The thirsty animals did not know what to do, but then the maple called out to them again. "You animals helped me so when I was in need — call the woodpeckers again." The woodpeckers came, and they pecked deep into the maple's bark until the sap began to flow. The sap of the maple tree saved the animals, and each year when the other foods in the forest went missing, there was the maple to call upon, even in the very dead of wintertime.
The sap would be cooked in clay pots, in which stones that had been heated in a hot fire would be dropped directly into the sap to bring it to a boil until only thin sweet syrup remained. Alternatively, the sap would be left in its container overnight during a freeze; the majority of the water in the sap would rise to the surface, and the ice could be broken off to enjoy the greatly purified sugar liquid underneath. From there, the sap could be cooked down further until it crystallized into maple sugar and could be pressed into wooden molds to be shaped into decorative cakes or blocks for easy transportation. There was no wrong way to enjoy the fruits of the maple tree: Early settlers noted that Native Americans might drink it straightaway like water, mix it with dried corn or wheat into a porridge, or use it to cook meat or fish.
Maple was considered a blessed food, because of its restorative powers and its reliable generosity from year to year. For Native Americans of the region, sweet flavors were hard to come by prior to the boiling of maple syrup. While honey and wild berries were available, they were nothing compared to the intense sugar rush of the maple syrup. Due to the quick supply of caloric energy that the maple syrup would provide, many Native Americans felt it was a strength-booster. In his 1653 text The Complete Herbal, the English botanist Nicholas Culpeper noted that the consumption of maple syrup was "excellent good [and may] open obstructions of the liver and the spleen, and easeth pain of the sides thence proceeding." Other botanists documented that the maple bark was used with herbs to make medicinal pastes and salves. (The efficacy of these treatments may have had more to do with the specific herbs used for each remedy, especially those containing menthol, eucalyptus, and aloe, but the moist bark of the maple tree was ideal for such mixtures.)(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Crown Maple Guide to Maple Syrup"
Copyright © 2016 Madava Holdings, LLC.
Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.
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Table of Contents
PART ONE THE HISTORY OF OUR TASTE FOR MAPLE SYRUP,
PART TWO THE SCIENCE OF GROWING, TAPPING, AND EVAPORATING SAP INTO SYRUP,
PART THREE COOKING WITH MAPLE SYRUP,
ABOUT THE AUTHOR,
INDEX OF SEARCHABLE TERMS,