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Sweet on Canada

Maple syrup a product of the Canadian landscape

Any child who grew up east of the prairies would at some time in their life have taken part in an annual spring pilgrimage – a visit to the sugar bush.

It was inevitably cold with a lot of snow still on the ground while we were led from tree to tree to watch the minute drops of clear sap running from the maples into metal buckets. We would pile into the sugar shack, dark and sweetly steaming, to see the sap being boiled off in great big vats.

The best part though was reaching the pancake house. Long tables and benches were set up to receive stacks of hot pancakes and fresh maple syrup, and we gorged ourselves until it seemed that everything was sticky and sweet.

Popular legend says that a First Nations chief threw his tomahawk at a maple tree, creating a slash in the bark. Thinking the bleeding sap to be water, his wife collected the clear liquid to cook venison. The resulting dish was so delicious the experiment was repeated from that point on. North American Natives collected "sweetwater" during the "maple moon" by slashing diagonally into the bark of maple trees. They would place a hollow reed into the slash and collect the sap in hollowed out basswood logs. The sap was concentrated into syrup by throwing heated rocks into the log until the desired sweetness was achieved.

When European settlers arrived in eastern North America the maple secret was shared. Production of syrup continued with a few minor changes; sap was collected in wooden buckets and boiled off in large kettles above outdoor fires. Maple syrup and sugar was the standard sweetener used by colonials up until 1875, when cane sugar first became available.

Today the practice continues with more efficient collection and reduction techniques. Canada accounts for 80 per cent of the world’s production of maple syrup, the rest is produced in the United States. In 1998, the total farm value of Canadian maple syrup was $156 million. Quebec is by far the largest maple product producer in Canada, accounting for 93 per cent of this country’s maple industry. This is followed by Ontario (4 per cent), New Brunswick (2 per cent), and Nova Scotia (1 per cent). Much of Quebec’s maple syrup is exported while Ontario’s is sold domestically.

All trees produce sap, but it is the maple tree that has the unique concentration of sugar. The environment necessary for maple sugaring, warm daytime thawing temperatures with cold (below freezing) nights, occurs only in the Eastern part of North America. The main maple sap producing tree is the Sugar Maple ( Acer saccharum ) followed by the Red Maple ( Acer rubrum ) and Silver Maple ( Acer saccharinum ).

In the summer, the tree produces starch which it stores in its roots. During the spring thaw, the starch is converted to sugar (sucrose) in preparation for the growing season. The sugar is mixed with the water and soil minerals absorbed through the roots and then circulates through the tree with the aid of the temperature gradient during the thaw (early March through April).

Maple sap contains about 97 per cent water. To make maple syrup the sap must be carefully boiled off to reduce the amount of water and concentrate the maple flavour. On average, it takes about 40 litres of sap to make 1 litre of syrup. Generally there is a higher concentration of sugar in the sap earlier in the sugar season, so it will not take as long to boil down as it does later in the season.

When the sap is boiled down using wood for fuel a standard hardwood cord (4’x4’x8’) will produce enough energy to make 68 litres of maple syrup. Heating sap using oil as energy uses about 3-4 litres of fuel oil to produce a litre of syrup. Modern reverse osmosis techniques are able to concentrate the sugar content of sap threefold in order to save on heating costs. These techniques also produce syrup that is lightly coloured.

Maple farmers are very careful to preserve their trees so that they will yield sap for decades to come. Tapping a tree to insert spouts for the sap to drip from does not harm the tree as long as they are not too deep. The sap that is collected from the tree is as little as 5 per cent of the sap that the tree uses for growth.

There are laws governing how many taps a tree can withstand (according to the diameter of the trunk), to a maximum of four taps. Sugar maple trees, when grown under optimal conditions, will reach tapping size, 25 cm. in diameter, in about 40 years. During sugaring season, which runs for roughly six weeks, an average tree will yield between 35 and 50 litres of sap, which when concentrated will produce between 1 and 1.5 litres of maple syrup.

Considering tree age, the ratio of water to sugar, the energy needed for evaporation and the number of trees that sap needs to be collected from, it is no wonder that true maple syrup products are expensive. In Canada there are three Grades of maple syrup which are further divided into colour categories. Canada No. 1 (Extra Light, Light and Medium) is subtle and sweet; Canada No. 2 (Amber) is mellow flavoured; and Canada No. 3 (Dark) is robust, strong and rich and usually reserved for cooking with, although all syrups are great on pancakes and waffles.

Syrup tapped earlier in the season is delicately flavoured and lighter than syrup produced in the warmer sugaring weeks. Prices roughly follow the grading system – No. 1 Medium costs around $20 a litre while No. 3 sells for around $13.

Other maple products such as maple sugar, maple butter and maple honey are all a result of the degree to which the sap is concentrated. Maple sugar is the result of boiling off all the water in the sap and is the true ingredient in Quebec’s Tarte au Sucre d’Erable (maple sugar pie). It is roughly twice as sweet as regular granulated sugar. Other products sold on the market that are more economical are usually maple-flavoured, especially pancake syrup which is usually flavoured corn syrup. For the true maple syrup lover, only the real stuff will do.

There are a lot of maple syrup recipes on the Web at Canadian sites – the Google search engine will pop up lots of options after simply typing in maple syrup. Maple syrup is a staple at breakfast time when pancakes or waffles are on the table, but it is often beautifully paired with pork or game for a sweet pairing with savory dishes.

A really speedy and yummy dessert combines half a cup of maple syrup with 3 tablespoons of orange or almond liqueur or rum or cognac with four cups of fresh fruit pieces. Leave it to sit for an hour to develop the flavour then serve.

The following recipe comes from "Six O’Clock Solutions" by Eve Johnson and the Vancouver Sun test kitchen.

Pork Chops with Maple Syrup and Balsamic Vinegar (serves 4)

• 500 g (1 pound) boneless fast-fry pork chops

• salt and pepper

• 1 tablespoon butter

• 1 tablespoon vegetable oil

• 2 tablespoons finely chopped shallots

• three quarter cup canned chicken broth (undiluted)

• 1 tablespoon maple syrup

• 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

Lightly sprinkle both sides of pork chops with salt and pepper.

In a large heavy frypan, heat the butter and oil over medium-high heat. Add chops and sauté for about three and a half minutes a side or until cooked, turning once. Remove chops and set aside.

Add shallot to frypan and sauté for about 30 seconds. Stir in stock and boil for 3 to 5 minutes or until reduced to about half a cup. Stir in maple syrup and vinegar; simmer until slightly thickened, about 2 minutes. Return chops with accumulated juice to frypan and heat through, about 1 minute.




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