Spring Sweets: Making Maple Syrup Magic
Many of us drizzle (or dump) maple syrup over our breakfast without a second thought. But there is more to the making of this sweet and indigenous glaze than meets the eye (and mouth, and nose).
I love having a reason to talk about food, eat food, cook food, and most importantly explore food. As a culinary student I don’t need any excuse whatsoever to go waste time away, at say, a maple syrup farm. It was Maple Syrup Weekend in Dutchess County, New York, after all. Just follow the yellow wooden arrow to Hummingbird Ranch. There’s no place like Ye Maple Distillery (see below).
And when it’s maple syrup day at Hummingbird in Clinton, your nose just knows. The smell is intoxicating. A tiny storybook barn on the top of a small hill is where the magic happens, and this time of year the sweet succulent scent of maple sap boiling away is a frequent happening.
Ranch owner Richard Focht taps sap from three separate Hudson Valley sugar bushes (love that term) with around 1,000 trees each. Maple sap actually pours like water, and the yield per gallon depends on the sugar content, which is only one or two percent. It can take 40 gallons of sap to achieve one gallon of pure syrup. That is a lot of sap, and not so much syrup, which is why the real stuff is not cheap (and well worth the price).
Much to the dismay of maple syrup producers, the sap yield and character are mostly in the hands of mother nature. The temperature outside determines whether or not the trees cooperate. In order to tap usable sap, it can’t be too warm, or too cold. It’s almost a Goldilocks syndrome. But once it is successfully collected (by the tank full), the process inside Focht’s classic red barn couldn’t be more reliable, or high-tech.
He lovingly calls it “the evaporator.” The machine is a large stainless steel boiler with two compartments – a larger one (in the back) for the initial reduction of sap to syrup, and a second smaller, open-air trough for syrup finishing. “The final pan, [is where sap is] boiling much heavier, and getting closer and closer to syrup,” explained Focht as he monitored a fresh batch the day of my visit. Once a heavy-duty thermometer agrees the syrup is 219 degrees Fahrenheit, the evaporator automatically pumps the finished syrup to its final destination. No additives, no funny business, just pure sweet syrup from the trees in my own backyard, relatively speaking.
The day I paid a visit to Hummingbird Ranch was one of the last sap-to-syrup days for the season. And Focht is already looking ahead. “We’ll have another season later in the year, but that [lower quality product] will mostly get sold off to be made into Mrs. Butterworth’s.” In other words, not the real syrup that his cheesecake dreams are made of. But after all, anyone who sets out to preserve the integrity of nature, and not transform it, must be a big sap for the bounty of the land, and the sweet life it provides.