ET19_Maple_SapDrip


Happiness in a Bottle
STORY, PHOTOS AND VIDEO BY AUBE GIROUX

 

My fondest childhood memory growing up in Quebec is of those early spring days when the maple syrup gods would descend upon our school and serve up la tire d’érable. They’d set up row upon row of snow-packed troughs that stretched all the way down the schoolyard. From grades one through six, the entire student body would cram like sardines all the way down this snowy dining arrangement; a rainbow of colourful hats and snowsuits, eyes wide in anticipation, popsicle sticks poised in midair, ready for the action to begin. As generous ribbons of hot golden maple syrup were poured all over the snow, there would be an awestruck silence as we watched the miracle unfold. The syrup would solidify into a gooey taffy as soon as it hit the snow. The memory after that moment turns to slow-mo (with a hallelujah chorus soundtrack) as I wrap as much as I possibly can around my popsicle stick and settle into a deep maple bliss. The world vanishes and it’s just me, that little wand of sugary magic in my hand and the promise of spring in the air. This is how my lifelong love affair with maple syrup began.

Last year I received a bottle of homemade maple syrup from my dad. For several years now, he has been tapping five large maple trees on his property just east of Montreal. He makes about ten litres of syrup, enough to last him for a full year, including the many gift bottles destined for family and friends. He loves to brag about how energy efficient his process is since he evaporates the sap in big pots right on his woodstove, which is chugging away all winter regardless, heating up his whole house. He jokes that it’s the lazy way to do it, since the maple syrup basically makes itself. To get a litre of maple syrup, you need forty litres of sap, so it takes some time for that much water to evaporate, especially when you’re doing it the slow way, like my dad.  But sure enough, after a few days of evaporation, a light syrup is left behind, which he transfers to his kitchen stovetop to ensure it reaches the required temperature of 219º F. He then filters it through a piece of thin cotton and bottles it up.

This year I joined my dad on his maple syrup-making adventure. He and I have always been close but, since my parents separated soon after I was born, I never actually lived with him until I was 17 years old. Some of my favourite moments during the two years we lived together were the midnight snacks we occasionally shared after he came home from his evening nursing shifts. Often, this consisted of a slice of bread soaked in a bowlful of maple syrup. Of course, we both knew the bread was just a flimsy excuse to guzzle down an otherwise embarrassing amount of syrup.

My dad has always managed to get by on very little and there is a French expression that he has been repeating to me ever since I was a kid. It roughly translates as: It’s hard enough being poor, why make the matter worse by living as though you were. Of course it sounds better in French but the gist is that you don’t need money to enjoy the finer things in life. And my dad has always found a way to surround himself with beautiful things: wild flowers on the kitchen table, sublime choral music on his stereo every morning, an antique dresser salvaged from the side of the road and brought back to life, and other such discarded treasures. This thriftiness, coupled with a wholehearted commitment to the pursuit of beauty and pleasure, was a guiding principle in my family.

Growing up, food and pleasure were valued more than material possessions.  Even when times were tough, my mom would somehow manage to scrounge together just enough savings so we could enjoy the occasional lavish meal at a fancy restaurant. She always found a way to keep the kitchen cupboards filled with wholesome and delicious foods. She picked wild mushrooms and grew a garden whenever she had access to a little piece of land. To this day, my stepdad stocks a freezer full of sauce from apples gleaned from a nearby abandoned orchard, and bucket-loads of wild blackberries. We never had much, but we ate like kings and queens. The most precious moments of my childhood were witnessing my parents’ abilities to cultivate, use, and appreciate the tasty treasures that nature showers upon us.

My dad says that maple syrup is a gift from nature, one which we can choose whether or not to accept. In his own words, he thinks it would almost show negligence on his part not to take this gift given that he is surrounded by large sugar maples. Ironically, he lives just up the road from a commercial maple syrup producer and has always had access to all the maple syrup he wants. It’s obvious that the choice to make his own comes from the tremendous enjoyment and satisfaction that he experiences from the process. It reminds me of a quote I’ve noticed floating around on the internet: Happiness is homemade.

Early this spring, I made the trek from downtown Toronto to my dad’s little piece of paradise in the woods, on a quiet, isolated mountaintop near Sainte-Anne-de-la-Rochelle, Quebec. With the birds gossipping away and the wind whispering promises of warmer days ahead, it’s easy to see why he loves this springtime ritual so much.

Walking in the woods together, we drink sap straight out of the cold metal buckets. Refreshing and invigorating, the icy liquid jolts us out of our winter sluggishness. Sap is a powerhouse of minerals and vitamins, containing all the nutrients that trees need to wake up from their winter slumber and burst into vibrant green life again. In some cultures, tree sap has traditionally been used as a medicine for all kinds of ailments. Some of the essential minerals in maple sap include calcium, potassium, magnesium, manganese, iron and zinc. It also contains vitamins A and B, organic and amino acids, as well as antioxidants. Of course, these are all present in maple syrup, but there is something particularly purifying about chugging back a cup of pure maple sap straight from the tree.

After we have poured buckets of sap into a big metal pot, we sit back, warm our toes, and let the woodstove do the rest of the work. My dad and I share a passion for Renaissance choral music. Over the years, he has developed an intricate archiving system for his extensive music collection. One aspect of this is that he has classified his music according to which season he feels it is best suited for. So our maple sap evaporates away to the Lamentations of Jeremiah by Thomas Tallis, a composition perfectly suited for the month of March, and for sugaring. I like to think that a maple syrup infused with such sublime music will be equally sublime in taste.

Over the next few days, the intoxicating smell of maple infiltrates every corner of the house. The advantage of making maple syrup yourself is that you can truly see, taste and smell every phase of the slow, magical transformation from sap to syrup. The greatest delight is in sampling it at each and every step of the way, tasting the flavour and sweetness intensifying as the liquid gradually changes, reduces and thickens. Of course, nothing compares to the ultimate pleasure of maple syrup taffy eaten straight off the snow. Before I head back to Toronto, my dad and I take a moment to recreate this childhood memory: pouring hot maple syrup over a bowl of cold snow. After all, I need some energy for the long drive home.

Aube’s Favourite Québécois Maple Syrup Recipes (click here)

From Tree to Pie: A Maple Syrup Vignette
Aube Giroux brings her Edible Toronto article and
Tarte au sirop d'érable
recipe to life!

  

Aube Giroux is a Toronto-based filmmaker and food blogger. The only thing that makes her happier than maple syrup is maple butter. Her video recipes can be viewed on her blog at www.kitchenvignettes.blogspot.com.

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