The Sweetness Of March

In March, winter’s pact begins to weaken, no longer a treaty anyone or anything cares to oblige. Sometimes in the morning you hear the birds have returned–at least the brave ones, and on a warm March day you spy buds at the tips of trees, and you hear the collective sigh of humanity ride out on the northeast wind.

In March, we are done with winter, even if winter isn’t done with us.

Sugaring season has begun about now, the sap is flowing and the first sign of something sweet has emerged, as if winter is trying to show us he’s not all bad. Maple syrup is proof something good can come from a season that takes such pride in being a tyrant.

The best syrup I’ve ever had comes from some land my husband owns with some friends near Cooperstown. They tap the maples there and every year, they increase their yield of syrup. They built something like a sugar house and they stand outside every March for one weekend or two, boiling down the sap.

If you ever wonder why syrup is so expensive, take in this little fact: the ratio of sap to syrup for the sugar maple is 40 to 1. That means if you want one gallon of syrup, you better have forty gallons of sap to boil down. And that means you better have lots of trees to tap. So, next time you open that jug of syrup, I want you to think about all the time and effort and patience and love that went into that sticky stuff. Yesterday my grandson poured half the gallon on his waffle and left the table with a full half cup of syrup swimming on his plate. He should have gone to family jail for that, and I’m not kidding. If it hadn’t been for the blobs of butter floating in the syrup, I would have thought about pouring it back into the jug. That’s a crime against humanity, right there. Thou shalt not waste Cooperstown syrup.

It turns out, lonely maples are the best trees for tapping. Not the maples crowded in the woods competing for resources, but that one lovely maple standing in your yard by itself—he’s your guy. Their sap is more abundant and much sweeter, and why not? It’s like you’re an enlist tree, with your own land, no one to bother you, living life on your own terms—a true one percenter, hogging all the nearby resources, like the sole fat pig on a farm, or a rich man on his generous estate outside of town.

These open grown trees are capable of producing one half gallon of syrup in one season (15 to 20 gallons of sap), whereas trees growing in a forest setting generally produce about one quart of syrup (about 10 gallons of sap). In addition to greater sap volume and sweetness, open grown trees are easier to work with because they’re more accessible.

What I love about farming is that it requires wisdom to be good at it, and since wisdom is hard to come by these days, not just anyone can tap a maple or grow an eggplant well. You’ve got to know when to open up that tap, usually in early spring when daytime temperatures go above freezing while nighttime temperatures fall below freezing. The exact time depends on the elevation and location of your trees and your region. In Pennsylvania and southern regions of New York, like us, the first sap flow traditionally takes place in mid- to late-February. In northern regions and at higher elevations, the season often begins in early to mid-March. Sap usually flows for 4 to 6 weeks or as long as the freezing nights and warm days continue.

My favorite sugaring place is Vermont, where some of the old syrup producers have ties to our country’s founding fathers. They’ve been passing down land and secrets for generations and they’re old school. They wear overalls and hats with with ear muffs, have the great Yankee accents, and trudge through the woods in their LL Bean boots. I know two of these producers and they just retired last year after 60 years of making syrup. Their grandsons run the place now, and they’ve got their laptops out at the farm and they’re looking at charts and graphs and they’re going to make this a Millenial operation if it’s the last thing they do. It will be a place made famous by social media and pretensious pictures on Instagram.

I’ll miss thinking of those old brothers traipsing through the woods in early spring. They’re the last of the greats up there in New England. They’ve told me sugaring should stay wild and pure. It’s all about the wisdom that comes from the doing of a thing. You can’t fake authenticity. If you try, it will be evident in every bite, or in the pool of syrup swimming on your grandson’s plate.

Real people make real good syrup. That will never change.


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