By Candice Kraak
Maple syrup. It’s such a recognizable part of Canadian culture, from the maple leaf emblem on our flag to the stereotypical, ‘syrup on everything’! If you have ever been in an airport gift shop or a Canadian tourist boutique you will undoubtably be inundated with maple this and maple syrup that. It’s the perfect, ‘truly Canadian’ gift.
But how did this sweet and delicious tradition begin? It is true that the indigenous people were harvesting sap long before the first European settlers ever arrived. We also know that they are responsible for teaching the settlers how to harvest this precious liquid. There are many myths and legends surrounding how the indigenous people discovered the sap and the sap to syrup process. One of the most popular stories is that a thrown hatchet lodged itself in the trunk of a maple tree. Some curious person decided to taste the sap that was leaking from the wound, and, as they say, the rest is history.
Sap was first gathered by ‘tapping’ maple trees. This was done by notching out a small section of the trunk into which reeds or wooden troughs were inserted. These supported a birch bark bucket or a sack made from the stomach of a deer. The watery sap would drip from the tree along the reed or trough and collect in the bucket or sack.
According to Indigenous oral traditions the sap was harvested for many centuries and used for energy and nourishment. In Quebec, the First Nations referred to the sap as “Sweet Water.” It was boiled into syrup and offered to The Great Spirit. Different tribes in other areas boiled it and offered it as a sacrifice to the Spirits on the Syrup Moon, which is the first full moon of spring. Venison was also boiled in the sap and presented to the Chief. Some First Nations made chewy taffy and others made candies by mixing syrup with animal hide shavings.
By 1680 settlers were involved in harvesting sap for themselves. Andre Thevet, the “Royal Cosmographer of France” wrote about Jacques Cartier drinking the sap during his Canadian voyages. The early settlers soon began to refine the sugaring process. They started to drill holes into the trunks instead of using notches and they introduced wooden peg spiles as taps to drip the sap and hold the pails.
The first maple sap evaporator was patented in 1858. Since then there have been many tweaks and improvements to the syruping process, but as a whole, it is largely unchanged. This may be especially true for the small-scale backyard tapper.
Maple syrup quickly became a profitable industry for settlers. It is one of only a few agricultural processes in the north east part of North America that is not a European Colonial import. So it is easy to see why it is so emblematic of Canada.
At the end of the harvesting process,”sugaring-off” parties were a much-anticipated time of year for the pioneers, especially the children, who were allowed to indulge in a rare sweet treat. Often parties would gather for days at a time to lug the sap, boil it down and finish it off. A typical sugar camp would consist of many outdoor fires with large caldrons hanging above each one. The fire pits would be scattered in the clearing around the sugaring shack. The walls of the shack provided shelter from the wind and offered a more controlled environment to do the finishing of the syrup. Families and neighbours all pitched in and worked together gathering endless amounts of sticks and twigs and felling logs for fire wood. Horses and sleighs were used to transport workers, logs and sap out of the bush. Women cooked up a storm on open fires throughout the day to sustain the hungry workers. It was a time of community togetherness; hard work, sweet smoke, eating, laughing, games, dancing, taste-testing, maple sugar highs and… pickles! Lots of pickles were served to cleanse the pallet and help neutralize the effects of all the sugar. And at the end of it all there was a celebration! A big barn dance and potluck supper were usually held at the end of the long process when all the sap was finally syrup. It was pure living and clean fun, good earthy, sun-drenched, fresh, rosy-cheeked work, that left one with that happy kind of tiredness at the end of a successful day.
For our family and our small-scale syrup operation it is all about being absorbed in nature during this precious time of year. Winter is preparing to loose its grip but is still very present. The air is brisk and fresh but the sun is noticeably stronger, buds are red and waxy and beginning to swell, and on warm days the long-awaited twitter of a robin or two can be heard heralding spring. We tromp over the shadowy ground winding through the woods from tree to tree, pressing down the paths that we will walk twice daily over the course of six weeks. We start the season tapping in snowshoes and finish in rubber boots. From crunchy winter snow to the smell and drudgery of freshly thawed spring mud. We start out pulling the kiddies through the snowy sugar bush in a sled, and end up pulling them in a wagon. This is what it is all about. The smells, sounds, sights, tastes and feelings of a world softly waking up and changing slightly each day. It is hard not to feel steeped in nostalgia as the process is so simple and virtually unchanged from centuries past. There is something sublime about apprenticing yourself in nature. It brings a heightened awareness of your surroundings and subtle daily changes. There is spirit-stirring joy in being immersed in it and a part of it.
Out in the sugar bush simple things bring great excitement and connection; the smell of the freshly drilled bark, the first tinny sound of sap dripping in to an empty bucket, then, later, splashing sounds as pails fill up. The sun glistening on a slow forming bead of sap that lingers on the end of the tap, the taste of a frozen sap popsicles, the hiss of the sap just before it becomes syrup. When the sweet steam rises off the sap during boiling-down it is a slice of heaven.
Our once-yearly hobby of about 10-15 taps went up a notch last year when my husband began to plan a sugaring shack. What started out as a tiny dirt-floored shelter quickly became an extravagant work of art. It is finished completely with repurposed treasures. There are tin tiles with embossed maple leaves on the roof, antique transom windows and hardware that open as the vent, old cedar siding – and then there was the epic search for the perfect doors. Last but not least it is topped with a maple leaf weather vane hand-made by our friend Jack. It is the perfect finishing touch to this small masterpiece.
I also received a personally designed homemade evaporator, created by my husband, for my birthday. It works like a charm!
If you have a suitable maple tree or two in your yard try a tap this year, even just for the sake of experience. I’m sure you will feel a deep appreciation for nature and truly enjoy this unique time of year. You may not have enough sap to warrant a boil-down but may I suggest maple sap tea. Oh! What a delicacy. It is loaded with many trace elements and nourishment; a spring tonic of sorts to awaken the body and build it up for the coming seasons of labour.
“For, eschewing books and tasks,
Nature answers all he asks;
Hand in hand with her he walks,
Face to Face with her he talks,
Part and parcel of her joy,-
Blessings on the barefoot boy!”
D John Greenleaf Whittier
Note: If you would like to learn more about maple syrup there are many maple syrup festivals held in Ontario and Quebec each spring. For example, the Warkworth Maple Syrup Festival (visit warkworthmaplesyrupfestival.ca) is held March 10 & 11, 2018 and the Elmira Maple Syrup Festival is April 6 & 7.