Even though the groundhog may predict six more weeks of winter, February is the start of the maple syrup season in northern Ohio. Here in Amish Country, the making of maple syrup is becoming more and more common as people become more conscious about their food sources.
Today maple syrup holds a distinction of being a delicacy – a taste that is desired by the finest of chefs. However, it wasn’t always so. Maple syrup used to the be the poor man’s sweetener, a time honored tradition from the pioneer days. Without a consistent source of sugar, pioneers across the eastern United States boiled the sap of maple trees into sweet maple syrup to use as a home-made sweetener. It was used in nearly everything – cakes, pies, cookies – you name it. When cane sugar became widely available and cheap to buy, maple syrup took a back seat.
With our fine stands of hard maple trees (yes, the same trees that show specatacular colors in the fall), Ohio ranks #4 in maple syrup production in the United States. Much of Ohio’s maple syrup is produced around Chardon in Geauga County, which hosts a Maple Syrup Festival in April. The Amish community in nearby Middlefield is very active in boiling syrup.
Maple sugaring is not as common in Holmes County as in Middlefield, but there are producers scattered around the area. My own father got the bug to start boiling maple syrup after helping grandpa years ago. Dad built a small “sugar shack” behind our barn and installed equipment built for boiling syrup. The shack had a wood furnace with a large flat top, built to hold an evaporator pan. Ours was about three feet wide and six feet long and was divided into three compartments. The large back compartment was built with flues, or v-shaped ridges on the floor of the pan. Flues add more surface area to the pan and make the sap cook faster. The front two compartments had flat floors and were made for finishing the syrup. Each compartment had a spout in order to run each batch between the compartments, as well as a harvesting spout for removing the finished syrup.
Every February, Dad would venture to the “sugar bush” or maple woods to tap the trees and insert the spiles (spouts) to guide the sap into a container. And while hanging buckets on the trees is a picturesque sight, every bucket must be emptied by hand into a larger container for transport from the woods to the sugar shack. It’s a lot of work. In the old days, a team of horses pulled a sled with a tank through the woods. After a year of handling sap the old way, my father bought a series of tubing that ran from tree to tree and ran by gravity into a collection tank downhill from the trees. He would then pump the sap into a tank mounted on a tractor and return to the shack to transfer it into the holding tank feeding the evaporator.
Our set-up was entirely heated by a wood-burning furnace, so firewood needed to be chopped to keep the sap boiling (chopping wood is the best way to keep warm in the cold February weather). Dad would get up at 4am to start the fire and would expertly keep the fire burning all day. The evaporator pan had to watched at all times to keep the syrup from burning. Late at night, he would come in with the day’s harvest – a few of gallons of syrup. Believe me, there is no better taste than fresh warm maple syrup over your pancakes, waffles or french toast.
As you may have noticed, making maple syrup is a labor-intensive process. Depending on the year, it will take about 40 gallons of maple sap to make one gallon of syrup. In some years, the syrup will be more concentrated, but either way, it takes a long time to boil down the sap. Nature will determine when the sap will begin to run – warm winters will facilitate an early harvest. Generally, sap will run best when the daytime temperatures are in the 40’s with the night-time temperature goes into the twenties. When the weather gets too warm, the sap will become cloudy and bitter, ending the boiling season.
In shopping for syrup, the very highest-graded syrup will be light-colored and very clear. This is syrup that has been perfectly harvested and cooked down. Darker colored syrup is a lesser grade, but isn’t inferior in taste. Be careful when you use it – it is sweeter than regular sugar or pancake syrups. Ohio maple syrup is available in various stores in the Holmes County area, but is readily available year round at the Dutchman Online Store. What a great way to sample a harvest that truly comes from nature’s bounty!