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Maple sugar
19th century style

I’ll say up front that I don’t like fake maple syrup. And not only because it doesn’t contain any maple. (Most brands are a mix of high-fructose corn syrup, preservatives and artificial flavors.) It’s because maple syrup is perfect just the way it is. Naturally sweet, it also contains trace vitamins and minerals. A study released this week even found beneficial antioxidants. It’s still a sugar, so let’s not go crazy. But for pancakes or baking, or drizzling over oatmeal or plain yogurt, it can’t be beat.

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. Cost and availability were certainly factors, but at least early versions contained some actual maple syrup. So all of us who grew up with syrup bottles shaped like grandma were closer to the real thing than we are now.

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 bottle of 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. So we get syrup with a side of history. But you can find maple events throughout northeast North America. (Here’s a shortcut for my fellow New Yorkers.) If you live elsewhere, but your region has maple trees and cooperative weather, it’s likely you can find maple events near you, too. Hurry, though — the season wraps up around the end of March.

At a maple sugaring outing this past weekend, Tess and her best buddy 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 had maple-glazed walnuts and maple snow cones (syrup over shaved ice). We did skip the maple cotton candy, though (even if the cotton candy machine was invented in 1897).

But the best part was 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 got 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? Tell me about your maple adventures.

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