Sugartime in Quebec
By “Awake!” correspondent in Canada
YOU are invited to a “sugaring-off” party. As winter snows give way to the spring thaws, shining tin buckets are seen dangling from the maple trees. In ramshackle sugar huts the vats are set and the fires are stoked, ready for the sap to be boiled into a favorite pancake topping, maple syrup. From Quebec’s cities and farms, crowds flock to the sugar camps. Want to come along?
At many farms in Quebec “sugaring-off” parties are an organized affair, with groups from the neighborhood or the cities going along for a day. The first delight is to your sense of smell. The sweet scent of boiling sap combines with the tangy aroma of burning wood to produce a never-to-be-forgotten fragrance that permeates the atmosphere.
The early European settlers learned from the Indians how to make maple sugar from tree sap. In 1851, the first year for which statistics are available, 13,500,000 pounds of maple sugar and syrup were produced in North America. Today production is about double that. The United States and Canada are the only maple-sugar-producing countries in the world.
Tapping and Gathering
The maple trees themselves catch your eye—straight trunks, free of branches for two thirds or more of their height. One of the largest Canadian maples commonly reaches eighty to ninety feet and a diameter of two to three feet.
As you look through the stand of trees, you notice sap buckets hanging on them. At the start of the season the sugar maker selected a place on the tree’s trunk and bored a hole one to two inches deep in the trunk, sloping it slightly upward so that the sap could drip easily. Next he inserted a metal spout into the bored hole, providing a channel through which the sap could run from the tap hole to the bucket. He also placed a hutlike cover over the bucket.
You will notice that trees with a diameter of less than twelve inches are not tapped. A twelve-inch tree will usually have one bucket, an eighteen-inch tree two buckets, a twenty-four-inch tree three buckets, and a thirty-inch tree four buckets. A tree may give up to forty gallons of sap in one season. The sap runs best on bright sunny days with warm temperatures (about 40 to 45° F.) and frosty nights.
Persons often ask whether the drilling and tapping of the trees harm them in any way. They are deprived of nourishment, but they work harder to make up for the loss. Also, the farmer usually clears the ground beneath them, providing more moisture and nourishment for the trees to draw on. Thus each season trees are drilled and tapped again and again, sometimes for over a century, without apparent harm.
As you wander farther among the maple trees, the ground still covered with snow, you can see the sap being gathered from the buckets. The sap is transported to the sugarhouse on a horse-pulled low-slung sled fitted with a metal gathering tank. The horses seem to have no difficulty winding their way through the snowbanks and trees. The modern metal tank is equipped with a strainer on top and a pipe connection on the bottom, through which the sap can be run into the storage tank at the sugarhouse.
At the Sugarhouse
Here occurs the most crucial and important part of the whole sugaring process, the boiling of the sap into syrup. As it is required, the sap is piped from the storage tanks into the evaporator inside the sugarhouse. This is a giant elongated steel pan. Under the evaporator the wood-fired furnace is in action. The sap flows continuously from the storage tanks into one end of the evaporator, and as it works its way through a long maze of compartments, the heat from beneath drives off the excessive moisture until finally at the draw-off end the concentrated maple syrup emerges. The syrup is filtered and then bottled or canned while hot (180° F.) to prevent mold and loss of color or flavor.
It takes thirty to forty gallons of sap to make just one gallon of maple syrup!
In this whole operation speed and cleanliness are important to the sugar farmer. The entire syrup-making process for one lot of sap is completed in one day.
A Treat for the Visitors
After touring the maple groves and the sugarhouse, the visitors gather around wooden troughs filled with clean, hard-packed snow. Our sugar maker emerges from the house with a bucket of boiling-hot syrup and ladles it onto the snow. It hardens immediately, and the visitors are able to pick it up with wooden sticks and enjoy the delightful “syrup on snow” of sugartime.
Next to be enjoyed by the group is the “sugaring-off” meal, traditionally including baked beans, ham and small pieces of deep-fried salt pork with hot bread; and, for dessert, scrambled eggs cooked in maple syrup. After dinner there are music and dancing.
Use of Maple Products
While maple syrup is the most popular of the maple products, we should not forget maple sugar, maple butter and maple taffy. Maple sugar is obtained by boiling the sap at a higher temperature than for making the syrup. Afterward it is poured into molds. Maple butter is produced by boiling the sap at a slightly lower temperature than for the making of sugar and stirring until fairly thick, and then it is poured into containers. Maple taffy, usually available only during sugartime, is boiled until it becomes of thick syruplike consistency, then it is poured into containers.
You may want to try some Maple Rice Pudding. Ingredients include: 2/3 cup uncooked rice, 2 eggs, slightly beaten, 2/3 cup maple syrup, 1-1/2 cups milk, few grains nutmeg, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1/2 cup seedless raisins. Procedure: cook rice in boiling salted water until tender. Drain thoroughly. Combine eggs and maple syrup and blend well. Stir in milk, nutmeg and the 1/4 teaspoon salt, then the rice and raisins. Turn into a buttered casserole and cook in a moderate oven (350° F.) until set, 60 to 70 minutes. (Serving for 6 to 8 persons.)
Or perhaps your delight would be in Maple Apple Sauce. One cup of maple syrup and a half cup of water should be brought to a rolling boil in a deep pan. Then fill the pan with unpeeled sections of apples. Stir until all pieces are coated with syrup. Cook only long enough to tenderize apples. The slices remain unbroken and are glazed with maple syrup sweetness.
The short period of the sugar harvest is over in only four to six weeks, but it is a grand experience each year. We have been glad to have had you as a visitor during sugartime in Quebec.