Fake maple syrup bums me out. And not only because it rarely contains real maple. (Most brands are a mix of high-fructose corn syrup, preservatives and artificial flavors.) It’s because maple syrup is perfect just as it is. Naturally sweet, it also retains trace vitamins and minerals, even antioxidants. It’s still sugar, so let’s not go crazy. But for pancakes or baking, or topping oatmeal or yogurt, there’s no equal.
Great lore, too: Legend has it that a Native American woman brewed up the first batch accidentally. Her husband, heading off to hunt one morning, yanked his tomahawk from the tree where he’d thrown it the night before. Sap ran from the cut and into a container at the base of the tree. The woman found the liquid, thought it was water, cooked in it and got a sweet surprise.
Over time the inevitable happened, and someone got the bright idea to make an imitation of the real thing. Real syrup’s high cost and limited availability no doubt influenced the shift, and early fake versions did contain a decent amount of actual maple. But, really, messing with maple syrup is just plain wrong.
I let my daughter taste the imposter in a restaurant once, because I wanted her to understand the difference, and thankfully she wrinkled her nose and went for the good stuff. (Food nerd alert: Yes, I bring my own maple syrup if we’re going out for breakfast. It’s just what I do.)
But even kids who haven’t grown up with real maple syrup can learn to appreciate it. And one way I guarantee you’ll get their interest is at a maple sugaring event.
We’re fortunate in western New York to have Genesee Country Village & Museum, a living-history museum that also has a nature center. (And terrific summer camps.) So we get syrup with a side of history.
But you can find maple events throughout northeast North America. And now is the time — New York’s Maple Weekends are March 22-23 and 29-30, and most other states and provinces wrap up by late March, too. If you live elsewhere, but your region has maple trees and cooperative weather, ask around. You’ll likely be able to find maple events near you.
At past maple sugaring outings, Tess and her best buddy have sampled sap straight from the tree (it tastes like sweetish water), as well as syrup from maple, birch and shagbark hickory trees (the last one is made from boiling down the bark, not the sap). They’ve tried their hand at tapping, and made tin maple-leaf ornaments. They’ve had maple-glazed walnuts and maple snow cones (syrup over shaved ice). We’ve always skipped the maple cotton candy, but we’ve heard such rave reviews that we probably should taste it one of these years. (And, hey, the cotton candy machine was invented in 1897.)
But the best part is the sugaring camp set up to show how early settlers collected, transported and cooked down the sap — techniques that haven’t changed a whole lot in the last few centuries. The equipment is better, operations are bigger, but the end result is pretty much the same. So the girls get a small-scale, up-close view of sap boiled down to syrup, boiled further still to maple cream, and further still to maple sugar. Forty gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. No wonder real maple syrup is expensive. But so worth it.
Have you visited a sugaring event? Tapped your own trees? Had other maple adventures?
I post an updated version of this piece each year at this time. So if it looks familiar, that’s why!
YES we did a maple festival last year and it was fascinating. I have a friend who actually tapped the trees in her own suburban backyard and boiled her own syrup.
Yes, we have Maine Maple Sundays here in Maine. We get to learn all about maple syrup production, eat freshly-made maple donuts, and buy maple syrup. Oh…and did I mention the maple cotton candy? Yum! I always thought I hated maple syrup until we moved to Maine. Turns out I just can’t stand Log Cabin, Aunt Jemima, and corn syrup! 😛
I was a dumb mom for a while…. I had figured out how to make my own maple syrup, or rather, pancake syrup. I should have thought about it… just because I was making my own didn’t mean it was healthier. It was sugar, water, and, um… artificial maple flavoring. Since then, a light bulb has came on and I’ve quit that and now buy REAL maple syrup. Duh! It’s SO much better (healthier) for us anyway. Ok… I guess we all start somewhere. I wish we had an opportunity for a maple festival, but don’t… They sound SO much fun though!
We have a membership to Lake Farmpark in Lake County, Ohio and attended their sugaring event last weekend. So much fun! However, I buy my Grade B maple syrup from my neighbor here in Chardon, OH. I believe OH comes in 10th in the county of maple producers. Not bad!
The *syrup* used at my mother in law’s house needs to be squirted out of a plastic container – it’s gel-like and plops onto the poor waffle in a heap. Disgusting. Not real. WHY, PEOPLE, WHY?!!! Ha.
Nice post! When we switched over to real maple syrup, I was amazed by how different it tastes. Now I can’t imagine using that (as you say) “gel-like” stuff! Real maple syrup can be pricey, but I discovered that Aldi carries it for $3.99/jar–a comparable size at my grocery store is $2-3 more than that. I’m excited to take my boys on a sugar bush tour this Saturday at a local farm!
A couple of years ago, my husband tapped a tree in our yard and a couple in family member’s yards. The syrup turned out really good. We didn’t have the right set-up for boiling it down, so it was a lot of work. We aren’t able to do it this year, but I hope we get to do it again in the future.
I grew up in Vermont, and I remember going on a class field trip to a neighborhood sugar house a few times in elementary school. My absolute favorite memory from those trips is tasting what we called “sugar on snow,” where you just drizzle some fresh syrup onto (clean!) snow – basically sounds like the snow cone idea with shaved ice, but we didn’t bother making and shaving ice, being rural Vermonters! 🙂
Funny maple-related story… my parents always saved the real (aka expensive) stuff for themselves and fed their three children the fake stuff. I only ever learned to turn down the fake stuff as an adult!
We tap our own trees, maybe about a dozen or so. We’ve been doing that for the last 6 years. We are averaging about 3-4 gallons since that first year. My father-in-law does the boiling for us (he knows what he’s doing 😀 ), but the result is some pretty good stuff. I am not from Vermont. I grew up in LA loving Mrs. Buttersworth, but when I moved to VT 13 years ago, I went to a maple festival event in Montpelier and fell in love. I won’t touch the fake stuff anymore. BTW…I am like you. I either bring my own syrup with me (I have those little nip bottles so I can bring it on a plane) or I go and buy pure maple syrup to use. Otherwise, I’ll just have eggs, thanks. 😀
Yes, good stuff! And do try the maple cotton candy – what a treat! (and I don’t like regular cotton candy.) My kids favorite is maple cream – spread on homemade challah french toast – yum!
Adrienne: Tess loves maple cream, too. I am not a fan (too sweet), but she thinks it’s the bomb for dipping pretzels. We go through it slowly, though. I think we still have the one tiny jar from the Brighton market last summer!
Please do not compare real Maple syrup to sugar. I urge persons with diabetes to test their “sugar” after consuming real Maple syrup. Most will be flabbergasted. For some Maple syrup will have very little if any impact on their glucose levels. Not everyone will have this result but most will. I was shocked when my type 2 nephew told me this and when I tested the impact was negligible. Make sure you are savvy about your glucose levels etc., because those carbs in the pancakes need to be considered when figuring out what the Maple syrup is doing.
Martha: I understand your point, and sugar/carbs as they relate to diabetics is a whole other discussion. But maple syrup is actually sugar!
I completely agree! My grandmother lives in Vermont and I have only grown up on real maple syrup. We lived a 12 hour drive away from there, but would always stock up when we visited. Yes, occasionally we would run out of “the real stuff” (as it was called in my house ) and have to settle for Aunt Jemima’s, but it was never our preferred choice. Now that I have a family of my own I have converted my husband to a syrup snob and if we run out of syrup, we do with out. I am so thankful there is someone else out there who feels this way about maple syrup.
Ruth: Syrup snobs unite! 😉