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Maple sugaring, 19th century style

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.

 

Sap on tap

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!

 

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