People who tour with us are fascinated by Vermont’s maple syrup, and often stop at a sugarhouse or visit a local farm to get a great buy on a few quarts to take home. They tell us it’s like taking home a piece of Vermont, as if the sweet taste of pure maple syrup conjures up the whole essence of their experience here. Why so?
Perhaps “Vermont” is inherent in the simple, almost primitive nature of collecting sap. It is a wonderfully mysterious notion that a farmer can bore a two-inch hole through the bark of a tree and harvest such a sublime tasting liquid. This very basic direct-from-nature harvesting process is unique to the sugar maple. And they know they are special, thriving with attention in Vermont’s sugaring season and brashly proclaiming their beauty with bright yellow and red-golds during the fall.
Special they are. No other tree in the universe stores and moves its life source like a sugar maple. Biologists still scratch their collective heads at just how the spring “run” of sap happens. What is known is that for the mere two to four week span between the hard edge of winter and the first sun of spring, these maples use the freeze-thaw phenomenon to both push the sap up from their roots and squeeze it down from their outermost branches. The result is a huge amount of pressure inside the tree. All that remains is for the farmer to intercept this with an auger and bit, and then “two drops to a heartbeat,” out it comes. Neat!
Maple syrup may also suggest something of the essential Vermont character – hardworking, resourceful, honest. It’s hard work setting the taps, and you have to set lots of them. Then gathering the 3-4 gallon buckets while trudging knee deep in the soft, late winter snow can be quite an ordeal.
Getting the sap to the sugarhouse is the easy part The real trick is to boil it down perfectly so that the resulting sugar content of the syrup is exactly 66%. Any less and it will spoil and taste like corn syrup, much more and it will crystallize and scorch. A keen eye and nose, some native “reckoning” and luck (with an assist from hydrometers and other fancy tools) are crucial to this success. Vermonters are renowned for their savvy and talent at drawing off the boiling sap just as it reaches perfect temperature, attains the right weight, and acquires its graded range of characteristic colors.
The result of all of this hard work and native ingenuity is a pure product. Nothing added, nothing taken away. Come to think of it, that pretty much says it all. About maple syrup. About Vermont. Come taste for yourself!