This week at the Manhattan Country School Farm, the seventh-graders helped gather maple sap for making syrup. They learned through practice what the famous Roxbury naturalist John Burroughs wrote in 1886: “A sap-run is the sweet good-bye of winter. It is the fruit of the equal marriage of the sun and frost.”
MCS Farm staff hung about 200 buckets on trees a month ago, drilling holes with hand-cranked augers and then tapping in the spiles—which are a combination spout for the dripping sap and hook for a bucket.
Then began the waiting game: for maple sap to run, ideally nights should be below freezing and the days well above. But this year the weather has been unusual, with many warm days and nights consecutively above freezing…or then a cold snap when the days and nights were both below freezing. But luckily we have had enough weather in the Goldilocks “just right” zone that we have gathered 1,000 gallons of sap, which was then boiled down into 25 gallons of syrup…which then appears with the morning pancakes.
Gathering the sap involves a hike up into the woods, to the area of our big maple trees called the “sap bush.” All the students made the trek and pitched in on this old-fashioned task.
Our vintage Ford tractor pulls the “sub,” a 275-gallon steel tank mounted on trailer wheels. Students go from tree to tree, unhooking the bucket from the spile, marching it over and dumping the contents into the tank. The tractor makes a long slow circuit of the sap bush.
In addition to building our syrup-making stock, gathering sap is just a fine excuse to ramble around in the woods on these glorious early spring days.
Some people don’t wait for pancakes to enjoy this stuff! Sap straight from the tree tastes mostly like water, with only a hint of sweetness, and maybe a trace of something rocky and mineralic…the taste of water coming through the earth.
When MCS Farm Program Director John is making syrup in the sap house, he builds a fire from pine wood under the evaporator pan, and constantly tends the fire, monitors the inflow rate of sap and checks the sugar content of the syrup. Sap slowly flows through a series of linked channels in the evaporator pan, starting out pretty close to water and ending many hours later as sweet sticky syrup. At some of the intermediate stages the sap can be dipped out with a teacup and sipped hot: “maple tea,” a delicious and invigorating treat on a cool morning. The syrup-making process takes all day, and sometimes can be left halfway done and restarted the next day. John basically can’t leave the sap house while it’s happening, but students always enjoy stopping in for a chat and maybe a cup of maple tea.
John talks about how we benefit from the maple trees’ natural process of photosynthesis. All summer long the green leaves turn the sun’s energy into food (sugar) for the tree. The tree uses some of the sugar for growth, and it stores surplus in the roots. All that sugar stays in the roots, dormant through the winter, to be released for a new burst of green leaves with the arrival of spring—and its temperature fluctuations. Hence “the equal marriage of the sun and frost.”
John teaches the students how to know, through observation, when the evaporating sap has finally become true syrup: the consistency of the bubbles, the temperature of the solution (seven degrees Fahrenheit above the point of boiling water), the “sheeting test” where the syrup clings to a spoon and finally, by using a hydrometer to confirm that the syrup consists of 66 percent sugar.
In the end, it’s an extraordinary sight to see John pouring syrup by the gallon out of the large milk cans he uses to bring it back to the farmhouse for bottling. And once it’s bottled, it goes on a shelf in the basement, to wait for that sublime pancake breakfast sometime in the next year. Making maple syrup is a labor-intensive process, but the pleasure the students get from the syrup on their pancakes is increased tenfold by their taking part in its creation.
But that’s a whole ’nother story…