February 17, 2013

Tapping into the history of maple syrup

Sweet, hearty, a product of winter, and prone to sticking to things, while these words call be used to describe Canadians themselves, I am in fact talking about something that has long been a product of the snowy wonderland that is Canada: maple syrup.

While many people the world over have enjoyed maple syrup before (or at least tried something that was artificially flavoured to taste like maple syrup), this amber hued sweet treat is in fact produced in only a few small areas, chiefly north-eastern North America, which the provinces of Quebec and Ontario being the most prolific sources of maple syrup in Canada (south of the border, Vermont is also renowned for its delicious syrup). Just as only a mere handful of areas produce maple syrup, so too is its harvesting season quite small.

Though, technically, it can be produced at pretty much any point in the year if the weather conditions are right, typically - and traditionally - maple sap has been harvested and then refined into syrup during the last few weeks of winter, with February being one of the most common times of the year for this sweet gift from Mother Nature to be gathered.




{Many brands of maple syrup - be their pure, blended or artificial - have been around for many decades, including Log Cabin Maple Syrup, pictured in the vintage ad above, who are still in business to this day. Image source.}



In order to morph tree sap gathered (aka, tapped) from maples that are generally 30 years or older into syrup, it is usually boiled in a special building called a sugar shack (aka, a sugar shanty, sugar house, or in French, cabane à sucre) that is designed with a roof that allows the stem from the boiling process to be vented out (it can also be made on a smaller scale by boiling it outdoors in a cauldron or large pot over an open fire).

The finished syrup is graded on a scale depending on both how dense (in Canada syrup must be at least 66% sugar and be created entirely from maple sap to qualify as true maple syrup) and how translucent it is, and then further classified based on its colour.



{A mid-twentieth century snapshot inside of man hard at work in a classic maple syrup sugar shack. Image source.}



The grading scales in Canada varies a tad from those in the States, but generally speaking, the higher the grade and the lighter the colour the syrup, the more highly prized it is for use as a condiment. Darker (grade B and C syrups) are often used for cooking, baking and commercial applications, though one can also find darker syrups designed specifically be drizzled over your morning stack of pancakes or waffles.

An individual maple tree can normally be tapped one to three times per year (depending on how big the diameter of its trunk is), producing up to 50 litres (13 gallons) of sap per one to two month harvesting season. Maple trees house starch inside of their roots and truck before winter sets in which is later converted to sugar that appears in the tree's sap come winter and early spring.

It is this starchy sugar that makes maple syrup so characteristically sweet. In order to turn sap into sugar, it is heated and boiled to evaporate the excess water, with the concentrated syrup remaining (akin in a sense to the process of creating caramel or candy from sugar and water at home on the stove).



{A Victorian image, circa 1870, of a group of people at a sugaring-off party held in the Eastern Townships area of Quebec. Similar events are still held annually in various parts of Eastern Canada and America to this day. Image source.}



Long before European settlers set foot on Canadian soil, maple sap was tapped and transformed into syrup by the First Nations peoples of North America, however it was the Europeans who refined and streamlined the process into what it is today (an industry that exports more than $145 million dollars worth of syrup annually). By far the largest producer of maple syrup in the world is the eastern province of Quebec, which is outputs roughly seventy-five percent of the world's total maple syrup (talk about a sweet place!).

Though by no means the healthiest of foods (calorie wise, it's very similar to white sugar), maple syrup does contain small amounts of iron, thiamine, potassium, manganese and zinc, as well as 15 times the calcium levels (and a mere one tenth the sodium) of honey.

It's flavour is both complex and simple (in the sense that it's very much a taste that's unique unto itself), redolent in many ways of dark brown sugar, but with more intense, subtly earthy, ever-so-slightly vanilla-ish notes. Though sweet like honey, treacle and molasses, one taste instantly lets you know that it's discernably different than those three somewhat similar substances, and that is has a pleasing flavour truly all its own.

Imitation maple syrup, though very tasty and pleasing in its own right, is generally milder and more artificial tasting than natural maple syrup, as well as generally costing a fraction of the price of the real deal.

If you've never had a chance to try genuine maple syrup, I highly recommend sourcing a bottle and experimenting with it both as a topping on various foods (pancakes, oatmeal, crepes, waffles, doughnuts, sauces for meat, etc) and as an ingredient in baked and cooked dishes (such as pies, breads, baked beans, cookies, and candied sweet potatoes).




{A vintage ad from 1950 for Sleepy Hollow brand maple syrup, which was a hybrid of sorts between real, pure maple syrup and imitation maple syrup, as it featured a blend of real maple and cane sugar. Image source.}



The maple tree, and its sap, have been a part of the Canadian identity for centuries, as evident by the fact that a red maple leaf takes pride-of-place in the center of our country's flag. We're known the world over for our maple syrup products, a fact which tourist shops across the country often capitalize on by selling charming glass bottles (often in the shape of small jugs or maple leaves) of maple syprup and various maple products (fudge, sugar, hard candy, etc) to visitors and locals alike.

Here in Canada genuine maple syrup can be found at nearly any grocery store (as well as some specialty food shops, department stores, gift shops, and various other locations), but it you live outside of North American, it may be trickier to track down.

Luckily however, in today's online world, one can easily order maple syrup products online, with four of the country's best known sources being Jakeman's (who have been in business since 1876), Steeves Maples (founded in 1869), Maple Orchard Farms, and Canadian Organic Maple.

Though I've never had the pleasure of tapping a maple tree or attending a sugaring (syrup making) in person (I'd love to one day), I've certainly tucked into my fair share of maple syrup and maple flavoured foods over the years. Indeed, there's scarcely a food that hasn't been jazzed up with maple syrup over the years here in Canada, where we're partial to everything from maple bacon to maple glazed salmon, maple (usually maple walnut, to be exact) ice cream to maple flavoured popcorn.



{Two early twentieth century - likely late 1910s or very early 20s - women boiling down maple syrup, as it has been done for generations, in the great outdoors. Image source.}



During the challenging years of the second world war when sugar rationing was in place, Canadians and Americans alike we encouraged to use maple syrup and maple sugar as a means of sweeting their favourite baked goods and other foods, with various maple syrup recipe booklets even being produced specifically for this purpose. Today, though it's a charming idea to think so, maple syrup is not the chief sweetener in most peoples' homes, but is certainly is one that's widely loved from coast to coast across the nation.

I always keep a bottle of maple syrup on hand, and never tire of using put it to use in both tried-and-true favourite recipes and experimental dishes alike (rarely has it not worked wonders on, and in, everything from chicken wings to apple sauce). This time of the year, as maple sugaring seasoning gets under way in full swing back east, I love to include an even larger number of maple flavoured foods in our weekly menu then usual, in a celebration of one of the country's most famous and beloved foods.

Join me, won't you, and indulge in a generous drizzling of maple syrup this month as Canada's sweetest harvest kicks off once more, helping to make an otherwise dreary, often freezing cold time of the year a whole lot easier - and sweeter - to bear.

49 comments:

  1. We here in the Upstate, NY also have maple syrup! Next time we are in Canada, Jeff and I will have to bring some home. That would be more fun than picking it up at our local Wegmans if they do indeed stock it. =)
    I used to love reading the Little House books and I remember them mentioning the sugaring season!

    Lorie

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  2. Have you ever tried maple syrup from BC? On the coast, people are starting to tap the bigleaf maples. The syrup has different, and more subtle, flavours than the sugar maple. It might be difficult to find (I've only ever seen it at local markets) but it's definitely worth trying!

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    1. Hi Kim, thank you very much for your comment. I have indeed had a chance to try British Columbia made maple syrup and thoroughly adore it. I like a light to medium bodied maple syrup, and really felt that big leaf syrup fit that bill. I hope it becomes more popular and starts getting distributed more across the country and abroad.

      ♥ Jessica

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  3. Fascinating! Maple Syrup is one of Vermont's main exports and I love driving around here during this time of year and seeing all the little tubes connecting all the maple trees as they're being tapped. I found an early 1940's Vermont Maid Syrup ad in one of my vintage magazines and it made me really excited. So neat to think about how some companies have been around for SO long. I never really liked maple flavored things that much until I moved to Vermont. Now maple soft serve ice cream is my absolute favorite!!

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    1. Vermont's maple syrup is so scrumptious fantastic! It's relatively easy to find up here (more so back East when I lived in Toronto), and I've always enjoyed all the bottles of Vermont syrup I've bought over the years. Ooohh, maple ice cream is amazing! I don't think I've ever tried it as soft serve though. Yummers! It would be worth going to Vermont for that reason alone!!! :)

      ♥ Jessica

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  4. Hi Jessica.
    You've got me wishing I bought the jar of real Canadian Maple Syrup I saw last week. I was so tempted but it was so expensive. I do love it so.
    I think I might go back & see if they still have any. ;0)
    I found that really interesting, thank you. If I do manage to get some then I can tell my boys & my daughter all about it when they're eating their pancakes. The boys will find it really interesting ;0)
    Mmmm pancakes ;0) x
    Lisa x

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    1. It's not cheap here either, even for the mass-marketed real maple syrup, but I'd imagine that being an imported product, it would be even more costly in the abroad. One of the perks of maple syrup though is that you don't necessarily need to use a ton of it at one time, so a even a small bottle or tin can often be stretched across a number of meals.

      Hope you and your kids really enjoy it if you do buy a jar.

      ♥ Jessica

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  5. How fascinating! My granddad has a maple tree in his front yard, and every year he taps it and makes his own maple syrup. When we go up to visit in the summer, we have it on fresh blueberry pancakes.

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  6. Mmm, what a yummy post!! As a Vermonter, this is one of my favorite times of year; I love seeing the curls of smoke coming from my neighbors' sugar shacks, and sugar-on-snow parties are a big tradition around here! Pretty sure there's maple sugar in my bloodstream at this point ;) Thanks for a lovely tribute to my favorite food!

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    1. Awww, you're very welcome, sweet Dakota. I adore how you describe maple sugar being in your bloodstream. I feel much the same way, too. Three cheers for us maple syrup infused gals! :)

      ♥ Jessica

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  7. I am now drooling over the thought of maple walnut ice cream! It sounds delicious. I had no real idea about the production of maple syrup so that was a really interesting read thanks. I am going to try it with sweet potatoes.

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  8. This delightful post will stay with me until I'm certain to stir up a bunch of cornmeal hotcakes or make a batch of maple candied bacon--slow cooked in the oven. A friend in Vermont sent me photos of sugar house ovens stoked and ready to go--quite an amazing thing but I've never seen it in person. Thank you for the reminder of what a labor intensive and wonderful thing we have in authentic maple syrup!

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  9. Maple syrup goes lovely with some bourbon, apple juice, soda water and lemon in a cocktail! :)

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    1. That sounds thoroughly scrumptious, Kate, thank you very much for sharing this wonderful cocktail recipe. It's not possible for me to drink any alcohol due to medical reasons (booze hasn't touched my lips in nearly eleven years due to my health), but if I could, I'd be all of this tasty drink. Perhaps I'll see if I can whip up a virgin version. :)

      ♥ Jessica

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  10. Thank you for this most interesting post—I just happen to LOVE maple syrup :-))

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    1. My pleasure, Jannie! Thank you for your comment and for letting me know that maple syrup is another love that you and I share in common. :)

      ♥ Jessica

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  11. OH, I love mapple syrup so much!!! We don't use it in Europe, but I remember when I lived in Quebec, I went to a "cabane à sucre" in march to eat a good meal and listening acadian music!!!! Liked to eat hot syrup on snow!!!!

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    1. How exciting that you got to visit a sugar shack in person, dear Laurence, I've always wanted to do that too. I lived in Ireland for two years and had a very tough time tracking down maple syrup. I was able to do it in Dublin, but it took a lot of searching. When we later moved to a small community down south in County Cork, maple syrup was amongst the Canadian foods my family sweetly sent me in care packages from home. If you'd ever like me to send you any maple syrup from Canada, sweet lady, please don't hesitate to let me know. I'd be delighted to do so.

      ♥ Jessica

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  12. What a detailed insight into maple syrup - thank you for sharing this Jessica :)

    Katy
    xox

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  13. Ooh my huz and I enjoy real Maple Syrup. The brand most commonly bought and sold in South Australia was and is 'Queen' brand. The label is a stylised maple leaf which boldly states 'since 1897 Queen Australian owned 100% Pure Canadian Maple Syrup certified organic'. I always keep a bottle in the fridge and an unopened bottle in the pantry. Nowadays several new brands and even good quality homebrands have been appearing on supermarket shelves.

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    1. It's awesome that you're able to get real maple syrup in Australia. I know that doing so can be challenge for those in some parts of the world (and indeed, when I lived in Ireland, I had a bear of a tracking any down (I eventually did in a specialty store in Dublin, but it was no easy task!). If you've not tried it before, I can't recommend maple syrup on sweet potatoes highly enough!

      ♥ Jessica

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  14. This is wonderful, Jessica. Near my home there is a county park that always celebrates the start of maple syrup time with a festival...they make the most amazing syrup the old fashioned way. We see a demo of tapping the syrup, there are all kinds of events and things to do and see.

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    1. That sounds like such a blast, Lisa! There are maple syrup festivals here in Canada, too, but they tend to generally be held back east, and I'm on the west coast now. I've never been to one anywhere, and would truly love to one day. I'm sure it would be a very sweet experience! :D

      ♥ Jessica

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  15. You know I think I knew that bit about swaping sugar for maple syrup during the war years. I can't recall where I heard it. Maybe it was from my Grama...
    Anyway, what a sweet post, Jessica! I do not believe I have ever tried real maple syrup, only the artificial stuff you get in grocery stores. Of course now you've got me wanting some delicious pancakes or fried mush with some yummy maple syrup.

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  16. They are already tapping the trees down the street from my house. I get the best maple syrup out here from the Amish.

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  17. Great subject. I *love* maple syrup. It's like drinking milk from a tree. We're near enough to Vermont and New Hampshire to get the real stuff; the first time I tried it I was hooked. I frequently use it instead of sugar in my tea. It adds nice flavor and the same sweetness.

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    1. How wonderful that you live but a stone's throw away from Vermont and New Hampshire and can readily acquire the real deal as a result. I adore maple syrup in tea as well. Should you ever come across blueberry tea, I can't recommended partnering it with maple syrup highly enough. Yum!!! :)

      ♥ Jessica

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  18. Mmmm! Jessica, what a delicious, sweet post! I love the pics and your wonderful writing. Having grown up in Northern Maine, not far south of Quebec, maple syrup, (the real deal,) was everywhere! We can find it out here easily too, but there's something special about New England or Quebec maple syrup. Now i'm craving yummy French toast drenched with the stuff. I think there's some in our fridge. (There always is.) And maybe this week i'll have to grill some salmon and drizzle it with... yes! you guessed it. Magnificent maple syrup. :) Thanks for sharing this. I love it.

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    1. Mary, that sounds so wonderfully scrumptious - especially the maple drizzled salmon. I'm not a particularly big seafood fan in general, but salmon has always been one notable exception and when you combine it with maple, I could eat it by the truckload full.

      Hope you have a fantastic maple feast!
      ♥ Jessica

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  19. wow, such interesting facts about maple syrup, fabulous reading it, thanks so much for sharing :)

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  20. We love maple syrup in our house on fench toast with strawberries and blueberries ( I like banans in the cooler months when the berries aren't availible). You're so right about the taste being so different between real and imitation...similar to real vanilla essence or vanilla bean compared to imitation vanilla essence.I really enjoyed all the photos and background. xx Shauna

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  21. Over here in the Netherlands you can only get the real thing in a few places, organic food stores and such, but it's very expensive. It has been appearing more though, especially coupled with bacon. Funny thing: when I first tasted it I realised I must have had it before as a kid, as part of a natural cough syrup or something.

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    1. I'm glad to know that it's becoming a touch easier to find in parts of Europe. I lived in Ireland for a couple of years ago immediately after my husband and I were married, and it practically took a team of bloodhounds to track some real maple syrup down there (I eventually did at a specialty shop in Dublin, where it cost me a small fortune, but there's no why this Canadian lass could go without her maple syrup, so I gladly paid it). It is so, so good with bacon! If you like somewhat savoury oatmeal dishes, the two combined in oatmeal are rather incredible together.

      Thank you very much for your comment,
      ♥ Jessica

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  22. This post was quite hard to read as my concentration was always cut off to wipe drool off my chin. ;-)
    -Jamie
    ChatterBlossom

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  23. Wow, I had no idea of all the details involved in producing maple syrup, this was incredibly interesting to read!

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  24. Great article Jessica! Believe it or not, I've never had real maple syrup. It's so expensive down here. Jesse really likes it but we don't eat enough pancakes or waffles to get make it worthwhile to buy some.

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    1. I totally believe that - I bet there are plenty of Canadians who haven't either. It's pricey everywhere and artificial maple syrup is tasty (I've met lots of people who said they liked artificial more than the real deal), so I really doubt that you're the odd (wo)man out there at all. I do hope you get to try it one day though - let me know if you do and what you think of it.

      ♥ Jessica

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  25. I typically have to order my real maple syrup online around here. The first time I did that was to use in the 10 day lemon cleanse but I ended up doing more pancakes than cleanses. Lol. This was such a great informative post. Thanks so much for sharing.

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  26. Very cool! I received some maple syrup from Canada once, and it was by far the best syrup I've ever had.
    Oh, goodness, somebody get me some pancakes, quick...!

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  27. A few years ago I found out that most of the syrup sold in grocery stores is high-fructose corn syrup with artificial maple flavoring. I bought a bottle of the real maple syrup and I will never again buy that fake stuff! The taste is so much better and as it is natural it is somewhat better for you. Yes, it costs a bit more, but it goes farther! Plus, maple syrup production is very interesting. Thanks for a great post!

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    1. My pleasure, dear lady, so happy to know you enjoyed it. I agree, the real deal really is the bee's knees and well worth the splurge.

      ♥ Jessica

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  28. You're making me wish it was Sunday so I could make a really sweet and tasty brunch! :)

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  29. Delicious! New York has a great reputation for Maple Syrup as well. We have a bunch of local farms about three quarters of an hour north of my home in Troy, NY. Local children in that part of the state can even taste the difference between the syrup from different farms!
    Here is a New York maple syrup recipes for you - http://www.nysmaple.com/cooking-recipes/gluten-free-dairy-free-egg-free-ginger-peach-pie

    New York Superior quality Grade A syrup is made only by the evaporation of pure maple sap, and must by weight contain no less than 66 percent sugar.

    Grade A maple syrup is classified according to color. The darker the syrup, the stronger the maple taste.
    Grade A Light Amber — the lightest of the three classifications with a mild and delicate flavor. It’s best for maple cream and molded maple sugar (candy).
    Medium Amber — a bit darker with a fuller flavor. This is the most popular grade for table syrup.
    Dark Amber — the darkest of the three grades has a stronger maple flavor. This all-purpose syrup is good for cooking, baking and table use.
    Extra Dark — used for cooking, strongest maple flavor. Best for cooking.
    Grade B — sold in bulk for reprocessing and the manufacture of commercial table syrups. Best for baking.

    To substitute maple syrup for white sugar, use ¾ cup maple syrup for one cup white sugar. Reduce the liquid in the recipe by three Tablespoons for each cup of syrup used.

    I prefer the taste of wood fire evaporated syrup. That delicious smoky taste!
    Kathleen

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    1. Hi Kathleen, thank you very much for your fantastic, detailed comment and for that GF recipe, I can't wait to try it out (yum-yum!). You clearly know your maple syrup, my dear friend!

      ♥ Jessica

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  30. It is so amazing that it is tapped from trees! :)

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  31. This is wonderful! I was born in Burlington, Vermont and after my parents immigrated from Europe, their first taste of maple syrup was on the site of a maple farm. They still tell me stories from that time, and how lovely it was. That might be why I have such an affinity for maple trees, as I am currently studying their ecosystem interactions as an ecologist!

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    1. What an absolutely touching, wonderful link to maple syrup. Thank you very much for sharing this lovely story about your family's ties to this North American delicacy with me, dear gal.

      ♥ Jessica

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