Tag Archives: Maple tree tapping

The taste of place

The Essence of Canada

Birch syrup rendering over an open fire.

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.

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!

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!’

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Filed under Agriforestry, Educational, Food preservation, Just for fun, Learning to Farm

A spoonful of sugar

birchsyrupimageAs part of my ‘Year in Provisions’ project–which isn’t really a year long gig at all but rather a complete change in life-style and way of being in the world–I have wanted to extract myself from the dependency of store-bought sugar. One way of doing this would be to get bees (which is on my wish list and my list of things to do!) The other way, and the more traditional in my part of the world, is to tap trees, extract their sweet sap and render it down into a sweet, tasty syrup.

The kind of spile that was lent to me by a local man.

The kind of spile that was lent to me by a local man.

This year I  managed (finally) to get organized enough before the trees were out in leaf, and it was all too late. What spurred me in to action this year was the two weeks of really warm weather we experienced at the end of February. I suddenly felt behind in everything during those ten or so days and realized that if I wanted to give tree tapping a try, I’d better get moving. Luckily it got much colder again (luckily?… did I actually say that out loud) and the trees have remained in their hibernation state.


Traditional tapping, first cut through bark with a knife.

Traditional tapping, first cut through bark with a knife.

Last week I found a local man who has experimented over the years with both maple and birch syrup making. Not only was he kind enough to tell me about his experiments and provide advice, but he also  lent me 10 spiles (the official thingys you tap the trees with) and ten ice cream buckets to catch the sap in. Not wanting to inadvertently poison myself,  when he dropped off the tools I showed him what I thought were my Douglas maple trees. I needed the verification because locally they are called ‘Vine Maples’ and not being a woodsman, I really wasn’t sure if I was on the right track or not.

He assured me they are indeed a Douglas Maple and that they are repudiated to be one of the best sugar maples in terms of flavour. Such good producers, he’s stopped tapping the birch trees altogether and is now focussing on just the Maples. He told me excitedly he’s found a few Norway Maples and he is going to experiment with that type this year.

Traditional tapping with live branch from parent tree.

Traditional tapping with live branch from parent tree.

Yesterday, I tapped the three maples on my property and seven of the birches. I have found  through internet research that you can mixed the two saps and form a uniquely flavoured syrup. The maple provides a better conversion of sap to syrup than the birch (40 to 1 versus 80-100 to 1). So the blending of the two saps should make the rendering process less time consuming than straight birch sap–or so my theory goes!

Birch tree tapped with its own branch and bucket ready to collect the sap.

Birch tree tapped with its own branch and bucket ready to collect the sap.

Sadly, I found my camera is on the blink so I don’t have pre-syrup pics for you of my own tapped trees. However, I found a very interesting set of photos and gleaned them, and this idea, from the web. It shows the traditional way (without metal spiles) of tapping trees. Just goes to show how simple this process can be! I just might try it as well and not bother to buy spiles.

If you are wanting to try the Birch Syrup without having to do it all yourself, here is a list of possibilities:

Uncle Berwyn’s Yukon Birch Syrup

Birch Boy Alaska Birch Syrup

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Filed under Educational, Food Security, Heritage foods, How to...