The Essence of Canada
Birch syrup rendering over an open fire.
Well, it wasn’t exactly cost-effective, but we did taste the terroir of our own birch/maple syrup for the first time yesterday. Yes, that word ‘terroir’ extends beyond wine to other earthy products, because syrups do have local flavours, too.
Most people think of maple sugar production as quintessentially Canadian, and located either in Quebec or Ontario. It’s just not an activity one associates with the prairies or here on the western Cordillera–but we did it! We found six birch and three maple trees in our front yard which looked likely producers, and tapped them last week. Over the weekend we continued to clear the front forty, and in the process of burning the small dry sticks and undergrowth, we rendered down our first batch of maple/birch syrup. The rendering ratios are 40 and 100 to one respectively, and because the maples produced more sap, the ratio of syrup was about 40:60, so by my calculations (and believe me, during the day we had time to calculate!) we ended up with a mix of about 20% maple, 80% birch.
My friend Clarence came by and stood amazed at what we were doing, never having witnessed this activity in this valley. As I looked across at my little yellow buckets hanging from their spiles in the tree trunks, I wondered why we are not all harvesting from our woodlots in this serene, labour-free way. Much of our radio news these days is filled with so-called ‘catastrophists’ predicting global economic ruin, and advocating getting out of cities, and I’m glad we are in a place where there is still so much knowledge of how to fend for oneself (Clarence’s friend supplied me with the spiles, buckets and advice on which trees were best), and enough space to do so.
Birch syrup rendering continues inside for the final stages.
I had read that you can easily burn syrup in the last stages. Mind you, you can easily boil it all away thinking it’s still just water, because it looks that way for most of the process: no amber colour, no viscosity. We had been away for a few days and weren’t sure how much of the buckets was in fact rain water–but we remained hopeful. After a day’s boiling, I brought the pot inside to complete the task on the stove. Sure enough, miraculously, at about one inch depth the liquid suddenly thickened, darkened, and looked like maple syrup. I took my first, tentative, frugal sip. Delicious! I read that boiling over an open fire imparts a camp-fire, smokey taste, and that’s true; this seems to enhance the caramel flavour, while underneath (almost literally) is an earthy, mineral flavour. I contrasted this with the more ‘clear, crisp’ taste of some birch syrup we buy in Quesnel, a town northeast of us, up on the plateau.
So, after a day and a half, I had about a quarter of a cup of pure gold in a jam jar, and we’d burnt all our windfall sticks and branches. We’d also shared two days outside under grey skies with temperatures heroically hovering just above freezing, but we were able to celebrate our ‘spring’ break pleasantly warmed by the fire and dreaming of future spring days, when the air will smell of turned earth and chlorophyll rather than smoke and birch sugar. My food sovereignty year started with gathering fiddlehead ferns in early April, but this new discovery has extended my growing season into March. My attitude towards time has shifted; as a self-provisioner, it is now geared to food availability rather than the clock and the calendar. I used to regard my year of activity as beginning on May 24, the traditional date for beginning safe frost-free outdoor gardening; with the discovery of fiddleheads it regressed, and now it has regressed even further. My world is measured by food: not only in time, but in space also, because wherever I walk or drive I remember what food I gathered there, or what i might gather in the future–that berry patch, that bend in the river. This must be how animals map their worlds, too. Last week while clearing the front of our property I realized from their trails that bears travel east/west and deer travel north/south, because their food sources lie in those directions (the bears follow along the streams to the salmon rivers via the berry bushes, the deer to the meadows via my vegetable garden). Like the Aborigines of Australia with their songlines, I am making my own tracks across this valley. Like the deer and bears, my map is taking shape along paths of sustenance.
The results of the first rendering of my maple-birch syrup--tiny, but tasty and worth its weight in gold!
And while my project of food sovereignty is not always about cost effectiveness, this exercise renewed my appreciation for how cheap our food is: Quebec maple syrup in a jug at our supermarket is about $12. The more self-sufficient I become, the more I learn about how much effort it takes to feed myself. As with other food items for sale in the store, I now think $12 for a jug of maple syrup is far too cheap for the resources used–even considering the so called efficiency of mass production.
I’m also looking at my land and its resources differently. What only a month ago was a tangled mass of ‘Wine Maple’ (that I was told should get taken out because it is ‘no good for anything’) has become a precious resource to me. I already have a second batch on the stove and will likely make several more batches over the next few weeks. I’m thrilled to have access to this wonderful sweet liquid–one less jug I’ll buy from the store. I feel a sense of accomplishment having added another dimension to my personal food security. I also feel a deeper connection to my land and an increasing sense of place; I now look at those trees on my place and think, ‘I know where you are and what you taste like!’