Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Missing Making Maple Syrup With My Family

This little bottle, evoking lots of nostalgia
I use a variety of natural sweeteners in my household, but one of them, I only bought 3 times since I've been married, because it pains me to pay as much as we do for it locally, when it is something we pretty much got for free growing up.
Maple syrup.

Oh man, how I miss that stuff.

When late winter/early spring time comes around, I start being nostalgic about my old home in North East Ohio, and the maple sugaring we did as a family.

People ask me at my foraging classes how long I've been a forager, and that answer is varied, because while I foraged intensely only in the last 5 years, I did go on "Weed walks" as a kid in the Allegheny Mountains in upstate New York when we would go camping there in the summer, and learned about things like jewelweed and their edible seeds (which tasted like walnuts) and their poison ivy healing properties. But even before that, I remember picking mulberries and blackberries when riding my bike to swimming lessons.

However, my earliest memory of foraging type things was something we did as a family over 20 years ago- maybe when I was 6 or 7 years old (it was so long ago that I had to ask my dad exactly when it was that we started it)- tapping maple trees to make maple syrup.

It started when we went on a trip to Rocky River Reservation's maple sugaring program and learned how you make maple syrup. It involves tapping trees, collecting the sap, and boiling it down to concentrate it to make syrup.

When we got home from that, we realized that we couldn't maple sugar on our own property, since our one tree was an elm. However, we had a few nearby neighbors who did have maple trees, and they gave us permission to tap their trees to collect the sap, in exchange for some of the sap we collected.

To maple sugar, essentially, what you need to do is make a hole in the bark of the tree, and when the sap starts flowing, catch the sap that drips out.

Though we have maple trees near me, making maple syrup isn't exactly an option for me anymore because of the climate- to get the sap flowing, it needs to be above freezing temperatures during the day and below freezing at night. This change in temperature gets the sap flowing up and down the tree. and when it flows, it drips out. The weather near me is not conducive to maple sugaring- it rarely freezes in the winter, certainly not every night... So for now, I can just reminisce about maple sugaring....

In Cleveland, we harvested maple sap from February to March- in colder areas, like in Canada, the maple sugaring season extends through April. Which means that this post may just be slightly too late for this year's crop of maple syrup for some of you, but hopefully for next year it will be applicable for everyone who lives in a place where you can maple sugar.

To get started, you need to find trees that you can tap. This link has a list of 22 different types of trees you can tap for sap- we tapped red maple trees, not the standard sugar maples, but you can also tap trees other than maple- birch, walnut, sycamore, box elder and ironwood!

Once you find your tree, you drill holes into it- I'm sure a portable hand drill would work, but we generally just used an electric drill- and then hammer or screw some sap collecting spiles into them. Depending on the size of the tree, you can tap it in as many as 3-5 different places. Here's a link to where you can buy spiles that are not that dissimilar to what my family used growing up- but it looks like modern spiles are plastic ones that use tubing to direct the sap into the collection containers. The spiles we used had a notch on them which we then hung our collection containers on- empty plastic gallon milk jugs- but you can use whatever you want, whether buckets, other types of containers, etc... Here is a youtube video about how to make your own spiles but it really doesn't matter what you do. The only point is- you want something to direct the sap out of the tree, downward, and into your collection container.

Depending on how fast the sap flows and how large your containers for collection are, you need to periodically collect the sap. I think we did it a few times a day.

Once the sap is collected, you have to boil it down. The sap itself tastes like slightly sweet sugar water- you boil it down until it is a thick syrup, nearly as thick as honey. I remember that amazing scent filling my house every winter- simply heavenly. Once the liquid is boiled out, this leaves you with a fraction of the original amount of sap you collected. My dad said that the most prolific year we got was 3-4 gallons of maple syrup from 3-4 trees, and the least prolific year we got only half a gallon of sap.
But I look at my maple syrup bottle sitting on my shelf- one bottle, on sale, cost me 10 dollars on sale for 8 ounces- so even that "paltry" half a gallon, 8 times what I bought, would cost at least $80 locally. And our best year- $640 worth. While maple syrup is much more expensive locally, even at Costco, their low price is $12.79 per liter, so our least prolific year made $25 dollars of maple syrup at Costco prices, while our most prolific year, $193's worth.

Now you can probably understand why it pains much to pay through the nose for maple syrup, because growing up, we had it on tap, literally, since we canned what we made in the winter and it lasted us throughout the year.

And so, my kids are growing up with pancakes topped with homemade chocolate syrup, jaggery syrup, or date syrup, not with the maple syrup I remember fondly from growing up. And when every February and March comes around, I get nostalgic about these fond winter memories, the maple sugaring with my family, my first regular experience with foraging, and I miss it, and wish I could share that experience with my kids.

On the other hand, I am trying to look at the positive and realize that though moving across the world does mean that maple sugaring can no longer be part of my life, the warmer climate and mild winters here do mean that I can forage all year long, and use wild edibles to stock my refrigerator and save money year round, while my overseas friends are envious of the greenery I'm picking while they're still covered in a blanket of snow.

You win some, you lose some.

But at the end of the day, with all the positives of our local foraging, I still miss that maple sugaring.

This summer, hopefully I'll collect enough carob pods to be able to make lots of carob honey

and use that, at least, as a homemade healthy foraged sweetener. It's not maple syrup, but it is delicious as well, and something we didn't have growing up in Cleveland.

How much does maple syrup cost where you live? How often do you buy it? Do you live in a place where you can tap trees for sap and syrup making? Do you know anyone personally that has done it, or have you done it yourself? What trees were tapped? What has your experience been like?
Anyone else have childhood memories of foraging? What did you forage?


  1. Tapping Birch trees can give one a tea with a taste sorta like root beer. I've read about this, but have never done it. Someday? Doubt it as I don't want to live anywhere again where I need to own a snow shovel.

    COL DR Penniless Dad FACC FACP

  2. We get a quart of maple syrup from neighbors for $5.00. It's a little thin, but sooo sweet that I wouldn't want it thicker and therefore sweeter! We also get eggs from my husband's cousin for $1.00/5 dozen! Now I'm trying to find someone locally who owns milk goats, as my daughter is allergic to soy and dairy and I want to have something else to drink besides coconut milk while I'm nursing. Unfortunately we live in the dairy state, so it's proving difficult. (My mother-in-law doesn't even believe you can have a dairy allergy because cows are such a part of life here!)

  3. Birch beer is awesome, esp when made by 18th century re-enactors in Up State, NY. Spruce beer, which I have tried to make, is awful, like drinking a pine tree. We lived for years in a place where you could tap trees for maple trees for syrup but the neighbors did it, so I didn't bother. Theirs was wonderful.

    Other things missing on the opposite side of the country: Snow. Apple cider. Snow ice cream.

    Things wherever Penny lives I wish I had: date honey. For starters.

  4. I grew up picking blackberries, beach plums, blueberries, wild grapes, and other wild fruits. I also foraged leaves like dandelion and burdock root. I really want to get back into foraging--it's so interesting. (We also fished, dug clams and picked mussels.)

  5. I live in Quebec, Canada. We are right in the time of the year for sugar shacks and maple sirup. We do have maple trees around, but people don't usually tap them, they only do it if they live in the country or have sugar shacks I guess. We can buy it around here, on sale, for about 5$ for a can of 500 ml. So it's still pretty expensive to use as a regular sweetner (my favorite!). We use about 3 cans per year (we barely bake), eighter to put on pancakes or in oatmeal.

  6. We are tapping our few trees now, and after so many years of living abroad are happy to be able to have our own syrup. There are lots of other trees that can be tapped. Maybe you can find some in your area. Some of them don't require the nighttime freezing. Here's a list:http://wildfoodism.com/2014/02/04/22-trees-that-can-be-tapped-for-sap-and-syrup/

  7. The Kirkland 33.8 0z maple syrup is sold in your country for 20$. That's very affordable.


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