Canada has always been in the sad shadow of the US. A few celebrities here and there (Celine Dion, Mike Myers, Pamela Anderson- betcha didn't know that one!), but try to name something that the country does well and you might draw a blank.
Here's something that I think Canada should be proud of: maple syrup. 80% of the world's delicious pancake and waffle topping come from here! As a little girl, I'd read about the sugaring process and was fascinated, but living in California I was out of luck to see for myself.
So after going apple picking last fall, the next New England-y thing I wanted to do was to see how maple syrup is made. We picked a cold cloudy day in March and drove up to New Hampshire (where people have "Live Free or Die" license plate frames- go figure). After having a hearty breakfast of deep fried French toast, ham hash, and grade A maple syrup at Parkers Maple Barn, we went on their free tour of the sugar house, where the sap is boiled down.
Afterward, we drove to Folsom's Sugar House and got an even better, personal tour of their small production. Two bottles of maple syrup and two jars of maple taffee later, my head was spinning with all the sugar and new information. Still, I was happy that I'd seen such a quintessential New England thing. Let's see if I can remember the process correctly to share it with you all:
In the traditional method, sugar maple trees are tapped in early spring, which means that a hollow tap is inserted to allow the sap to run out into buckets that are hung on the tree. They are never tapped in the same place twice to allow the bark to heal between years.
Onto the sugar house! The collected sap is poured into big tubs, like the one showed here. The sap we saw was frozen because we hit upon a cold spell, but I was surprised at how clear the sap was. It isn't an amber color at all when first harvested.
The sap is then poured into a big machine called an evaporator. It's a fancy name for a essentially a big stove that boils down the sap into a syrup. This stove is fed with firewood and burns quite hot!
When the sugar density reaches 66.5%, it officially becomes maple syrup and is filtered. Early season sap usually starts out with more sugar, so it needs to be boiled down less. This syrup is usually lighter and not as thick as some of the later sap that gets boiled down. The finished syrup is then graded based on its color. (There is a kit set up by the USDA.) Grade A Light Amber usually has the lightest flavor, and Grade A Dark has more of a robust, strong flavor.
It takes about about 40 gallons of sap to produce 1 gallon of maple syrup. It's such a small yield that I now understand why real maple syrup is so expensive. Lots of restaurants will charge you extra for real maple syrup. I respect that because I see that the yield is so small. What I don't have respect for are restaurants who serve pancake syrup and masquerade it as maple syrup. Shame on them for doing that!
Sadly enough, most pancake syrups have barely any maple in it at all. The companies take Grade C maple syrup (which has the strongest flavor and usually isn't sold commercially) and dilute it with corn syrup. Sadly enough, Aunt Jemima (what I grew up with) has no maple in it at all!
The sugaring season is pretty much over here in New England, but you can still get an awesome lumberjack-sized breakfast at Parkers. They serve Grade A syrup and it's a great drive and escape from the city, even if you can't see the sugar house in action. (Those of you in Canada might still be able to catch some of the fun up there in Quebec.)
We passed by this beautiful covered bridge on the way to the sugar houses. I can't imagine a more stereotypical New England sight, yet I still found it enchanting. It almost makes the frigid winters here tolerable. Almost.
Parkers Maple Barn
1316 Brookline Road
Mason, NH 03048
Sugar House Operations March-April
Restaurant mid-Feb until Christmas
Folsom's Sugar House
130 Candia Road
Chester, NH 03036
Sugar season over for 2007, check back for next year