It’s sugaring season in Vermont, a sweet, dramatic, energetic dance between humans and nature when sap is collected, consolidated and boiled down, into liquid gold: maple syrup. For Frasier Cooper-Ellis, 56, who’s been sugaring since he was 10, “It’s the most totally alive time of year.”
Warm, sunny days and cold, below-freezing nights cue the trees to convert starch (gathered the previous summer, stored through winter) into sugar. Depending on the weather, the sugaring season can last a few days or go on for six or seven weeks.
“Maple trees are the ultimate renewable resource, ” says Cooper-Ellis. But renewability requires patience, perseverance, work and stewardship. The next time you gasp at the price of real maple syrup, consider this: It takes 30 to 40 years for a maple tree to grow large enough to be tapped. Most trees have just one, maybe two taps, with each tap yielding just 10 gallons of sap annually. It then takes 40 gallons of sap to make just 1 gallon of maple syrup. Perhaps this accounts for the flavor: not just sweet, but elusive, hauntingly delicious and wild.
Much has changed technologically since the days when 10-year-old Cooper-Ellis first dragged a toboggan with a milk can on it around, pouring the sap buckets’ contents in, one by one. Now, spigots of plastic are drilled into the trees as close to the time of sap flow as possible. The sap is collected not tree by tree but through an elaborate system of crisscrossed plastic tubes, which flow the sap into the sugar house for processing.
“Sugaring’s not like milking cows, day in, day out,” says Cooper-Ellis. “It comes and goes with the seasons. It’s unpredictable. It’s magic.”
Think beyond pancakes. See how maple syrup adds a new dimension to other dishes like Brussels sprouts.
By Crescent Dragonwagon, a food writer in Saxtons River, Vt.
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