From Kathy Gunst’s Notes from a Maine Kitchen, Down East Books, 2011
There is an upside to March and it sounds like this: drip, drip, drip. At a time of year when nature offers so little hope, maple trees produce a clear, unassuming-looking liquid which tastes like barely-sweetened water. But weeks later, after much boiling and sweet steam evaporation, a golden amber syrup appears. Maple syrup season is, without doubt, the best part of March in Maine.
My husband, John, and I are what you might call small-time home syrup makers. We only tap a half dozen or so maple trees scattered around our property. The ritual of cleaning out the taps, the old tin buckets and thin lids (which we have gathered over the years at yard sales, farm foreclosures and country stores) is actually something I look forward to. During this time of year, the closest I actually get to growing food is to fantasize about it while I gaze at seed catalogues piled up on my desk, luring me with sexy pictures of tomatoes and basil and squash popping out of warm fertile earth. So, getting outside and starting to “make” food thrills me.
Maple season means working with the weather to make something delicious and truly of Maine (you need warm days and below-freezing nights for maximum sap flow). When the sap really starts flowing, we spend hours outside, straining it into buckets and getting ready to start the long, slow boiling process.
It’s 10 p.m. and John is missing. I’m in bed, feeling my eyes droop, exhausted from this not-quite-winter-and-not-quite-spring limbo we’re in. I call out to say goodnight and there’s no answer. Then I hear him outside clanging around in the dark. This is not a man prone to disappearing or making strange noises in the dead of night, but it’s maple season: he takes the dog and the newspaper out to the barn where he spends hours pouring the day’s sap into huge metal pans. We used to cook the sap inside on the wood stove, but the sweet condensation started building up on the beams above the stove and we thought we saw ants appearing. Suddenly, there was nothing romantic or smart about boiling syrup indoors, so John rigged up a strange outdoor maple cooker system. He sets the low metal trays (like high-sided lasagna pans) on top of a large, gas-fueled camping cooker and sits there watching the sap evaporate slowly.
When I use the word “slowly,” I’m talking about Zen slowly. The kind of slowly where you sit for hours (and hours and hours) watching sap go from watery thin to kindasorta thin. Hours go by, and nothing appears to be happening. Well, nothing that the untrained eye can see. It takes forty gallons of sap to make just one gallon of syrup. It’s all about PROCESS. It takes almost a week (sometimes two) of diligent boiling and adding bucketfuls of new sap each day for this subtly sweet, water-like substance to resemble anything even remotely like syrup. Once the sap hits the final stage (meaning the texture is thick enough to coat a spoon), it needs to be filtered through cheesecloth to remove any particles that might cloud the finished syrup.
The first few days of maple season I feel compelled to throw on my down jacket and head out into the cold, dark night to keep John company. He’s generally pretty friendly and polite, but after a while I can tell that this barn/boiling time is a solitary kind of thing. A man, his dog and his sap. I think the entire experience — the tapping of the trees, the putting up the buckets, the collecting of the sap, the boiling — is all a meditative exercise for him. And I say: go for it! Make me some gorgeous syrup, and I’ll cook you some gorgeous food.
He comes inside the house and climbs into bed at all hours of the night, mumbling sweet nothings into my ear: “We’re almost there! Looking good! Almost syrup time.” I roll over, fantasizing about all the wonderful things I’ll cook when the syrup is finally done.
And then, after nights of climbing into bed alone, I’ll wake up one fine March morning and see that first jar of syrup, the color of topaz. Pale topaz. He always leaves a few tablespoons in a bowl on the table for me to taste. Every year I swear it’s the best syrup we’ve ever made. About that point of ownership: I like to think of it as our syrup, from our maple trees, made at our house. But there’s no doubt in John’s mind that it’s his syrup. In all fairness, I guess, since he’s the one who stays up late on all those cold, March nights, he should be awarded the title of “Master Syrup Maker.”
We’ve learned a lot over the years. Turns out that maple syrup, like wine, has good years and bad ones — years when the sap flows like water from the tap, and others when it’s just too rainy and the sap gets diluted with rainwater. Then there are days when it turns warm too early and the sap clouds over and gives off a slightly sour smell. Every few years John insists on giving the trees a year off, like they’re athletes in danger of being over-trained. He claims he doesn’t want to overtax them, but it’s hard to give up a year of maple syrup. I guess I’m just not Zen enough to let it go.
The first batch of syrup, what we call First Run (and which would be called “Grade A” or “Light Amber” if it were sold commercially) is a pale golden color. The flavor is light and subtle, with a pure maple essence. It’s the texture that’s really extraordinary. A thin-ish syrup that coats your tongue with its subtle sweetness and smooth, buttery feel.
The notion of terroir, coming from the French word terre, meaning “land” or “earth,” refers to the impact a specific piece of land lends to food that’s grown or made on it. It’s a term wine makers like to throw around, but it also applies to the making of cheese (think Roquefort or Parmesan) and coffee (Kona or Blue Mountain) or even beef (Kobe). But I think it’s also an appropriate term to consider in the making of maple syrup. If my land and trees and old farmhouse could be distilled into a single taste, I think this First Run maple syrup would express it well. Clean, sweet, complex and deeply pleasing.
We try to save the precious, small First Run batch for really important meals like pouring over the first blueberry pancakes of the year or drizzling over locally-made yogurt. Sometimes I sip it by the teaspoonful directly from the jar and am simply wowed that anything can be so sweet, so buttery and naturally rich. I have come to think of this First Run syrup as “Liquid Gold.”
I’ve been experimenting with the second and third runs — the darker, stronger, more molasses-like syrup (labeled as Medium, Dark, and Extra Dark Amber) as much as possible, and not just in the standard breakfast kind of dishes. I glaze nuts — walnuts, almonds, pecans, and pistachios — in syrup and serve them in salads or as a snack. I like to spoon a few tablespoons of syrup on top of sautéed slices of thick country ham, chicken breasts and salmon filets (it creates an almost instant caramelized glaze if you add it to a hot sauté pan). I also drizzle it over thick slices of winter squash or sweet potatoes and roast them until they’re soft and sweet and practically melt in your mouth. Extra dark amber syrup makes extraordinary full-flavored maple ice cream.
One of my new favorites is maple-glazed bacon. Take a few strips of thick country bacon (from a good butcher, not those pitiful, water-injected thin slices you find suffocating in plastic at the grocery store) and place them on a broiler tray or baking sheet. Liberally brush the bacon with maple syrup, sprinkle on some chile power, and place the tray under the broiler for a minute or two. Flip the bacon over, brush it again with syrup and chile power, and broil it on the other side until it’s cooked through, crisp and caramelized. The combination of sweet syrup, fiery chiles and fatty pork is unforgettable. Eat it for breakfast, crumbled on salads, or serve the bacon with cocktails, like grown-up candy.
When you’re involved in making your own food (even if it’s simply a matter of collecting sap from a tree and boiling it down), it becomes precious. I am aware of every tablespoon of syrup I use, thankful that I’m married to a man crazy enough to spend long, freezing hours in an icy, dust-filled barn watching thin water turn to magical amber-gold syrup. Mostly, I’m just grateful for the miracle of the syrup itself, with all its natural sweetness, and the way it lets me know that the seasons are finally changing.
Roasted Parsnips and Carrots with Maple Glaze
- from Notes from a Maine Kitchen, Kathy Gunst (Down East Books)
Roasting root vegetables brings out their natural sweetness. You can also add onions, shallots, leeks, celery root (or celeriac) or turnips to this dish.
1 pound carrots,* peeled, with root intact, washed
1 pound parsnips, peeled, with root intact, washed
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 ½ tablespoons maple syrup
*Look for tender, slender parsnips and carrots no thicker than an inch or so.
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Place the parsnips and carrots in a shallow ovenproof gratin dish, skillet or shallow casserole, and toss with the oil, salt and pepper. Place on the middle shelf and roast for 15 minutes. Toss and drizzle with the syrup. Roast for another 5 to 10 minutes, or until the vegetables are just tender when pierced with a small, sharp knife. Remove and serve hot.
Serves 4 to 6.