If you were a kid back in the 60s or earlier the sight of tin roof covered buckets on sugar maples was a common sight during February in Western New York. I remember a local family who borrowed trees to collect the thin, clear sap that would eventually turn into sweet amber syrup. A big farm wagon and tractor would pull up to the neighborhood (a rural dairy farming neighborhood) loaded with buckets and taps or spiles. A mallet quickly drove the metal spile into the tree and bucket would then be hung to collect a steady drip of maple sap. Big maples usually had two or three buckets dangling from their trunks. Sap was collected every day and poured into the old-fashioned metal milk cans. It was back breaking work for 4-6 weeks. That was just the beginning. The boiling off process takes hours and constant care before it's ready for pancakes.
Real maple syrup requires an average of 40 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup. You can immediately see why the stuff is so expensive. American Indians were the first to discover syrup making and it's one of the few agricultural practices indigenous to America rather than Europe. That in itself makes it special. A true American made product. Even though technology has significantly improved over hundreds of years, the process remains labor intensive. The weather also has to cooperate - above freezing during the day and below 32 degrees at night. Chancy business in the Northeast. Weather there is a harsh taskmaster, and sap quantities are excruciatingly linked to the weather.
There are so many wonderful maple products: syrup, sugar, candy (traditional maple leaf shape, please), and my all-time favorite, maple cream. Without a doubt, the best topping for ice cream, yes better than chocolate in my book.
|Photo by Cold Climate Gardening|
A favorite jaunt in the bleak mid-winter of WNY is a trip or two to Cartwright's Maple Tree Inn in Short Tract. Not only do they serve the best buckwheat pancakes, but the syrup is made downstairs. The sugar bush (the stand of trees used for sap collection) cover the rolling hills around the little restaurant and syrup factory. Rather than buckets, plastic tubing is run from tree to tree and emptied into a collection vat. They use a reverse osmosis technology which shortens the time from sap to syrup. This year they're celebrating 50 years in business. How I wish we could meet old friends around a long table with stacks of steaming pancakes, plates of eggs, bacon, and sausage. Of course, I'd purchase a jar of maple cream before we left. Since that's not to be, we'll still enjoy New York maple syrup over buckwheat pancakes here. This is thanks to my sister, Amy, who keeps us supplied with syrup and New Hope Mills pancake mix (another NY tradition).
If you've been lulled into complacency with colored corn syrup, how sad. I recommend you get a hold of the real stuff and put that over your waffles. It's OK if it's from the Northwest, but New York syrup is still the best. (I know I'll hear from Canadians on this one.) Let it run willy-nilly over pancakes, oatmeal, waffles, or ice cream. At our house, it's one of those necessary luxuries that makes life sweet.