One America Homemade Maple Syrup Peaches
I know, I know. In my last post, I promised to discuss the effects of climate change on maple sugaring. And I'm sure you were really looking forward to that. But I hope you will agree with me that a blog-promise is somewhat less reliable than other varieties. I'll get there. (I promise!)
What happened was that my peach tree nearly toppled over with the weight of its fruit this weekend. Which was a big surprise, as I recall my disbelief at the point of its purchase two years ago that one could even grow peaches in Vermont. Who had ever heard of a Zone 4 peach?
Anyway, this happy development disrupted my fledgling blog-flow (get inspired of a Friday, write over the weekend, post on Monday). And all I did all weekend - besides gardening, chicken tending, laundry, house cleaning, getting the in-law suite ready for the in-laws, cooking, baking, painting my daughter's bedroom, and parenting while my husband made Sapling Evaporators - was think about these lovely peaches. And not climate change. Rather like reading a novel instead of your history textbook. Or eating cake instead of bread. Or having a weekend instead of continuing to work. Sort-of.
So, having not done my climate-change homework, I’ll pass this recipe on, instead. Climate change is sill going to be there next week. I'm pretty sure.
Peaches have a special place in my heart. I spent part of my childhood in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia. My brothers and I had a babysitter named Linda. She had a homestead way out in Harper's Ferry, where she raised a gaggle of boys. (You may have read about Harper's Ferry in that history textbook.) Linda kept to the house unless someone needed her, but us kids had free reign of the farm. And the peaches. The kind you can barely eat for juiciness. The kind that gets all over your face no matter how tidy you're trying to be. We had peaches many ways at Linda's. But one of the best, on a hot day, was frozen and blended with a little water. Linda called it the peach freeze. It was the taste of summer.
And then there were Grandma Jeanette’s canned peaches. Served for dessert whenever we were in Aberdeen. Perfect halves, flawlessly skinned, in heavy syrup, preserved in half-gallon mason jars. Grandpa Stan fetched them from the cellar slowly and carefully while we anticipated. Brought the South Dakota summer to any time of the year, over the years, first for my husband, then for us both, and then for our family.
So I picked my peaches this weekend – every last one of them – eating some while still warm from the sun. They weren’t quite the West Virginia peaches or South Dakota peaches of my youth. Nor are they Pennsylvania or Georgia peaches, I’d imagine. That’s what you get with a Zone 4 peach, I’ve heard. But they are fresh. And, this weekend, I canned them in my own homemade maple syrup. Bringing a little Vermont to the peach. Expressing solidarity with peach country. Sending a bit of sweetness South and West, into the past, and into the future.
Here's to hoping someone remembers my peaches fondly someday and passes it on.
One America Homemade Maple Syrup Peaches
Wash your peaches and freeze for at least one hour on a jelly-roll pan or other sheet pan with a lip. Run under cold water and slip off the skins. Half and pit the peaches, placing them directly into clean jars. Boil a mixture of four-parts water to one-part homemade maple syrup. Pour boiling mixture over peaches to 1/2" of top. Affix lids. Can in a hot water bath for 20 minutes, cool, and store.
Atoutumn is coming. And for us Vermonters, that means that the trees have gone from just-past-vibrant green to showing a little color. Especially in the hills.
If you are a beginner maple sugar maker, like me, this is the absolute best time to get into the woods and find your best maple trees for sugaring: your sugars and your reds. Leaf color can help with identification, and once the leaves fall, forget it. Time to get moving!
There are about a zillion resources for tree identification, especially online. There’s probably “an app for that,” too. But I'm partial to books. So, this weekend, somewhere in between pulling out the bolted lettuces, putting up beans and corn, and planting that plum tree we’ve been meaning to get into the ground, I grabbed a volume and took a little walk.
We sugar mostly with red maples. The sugar content of the sap is lower, so it takes a bit more work, but the syrup tastes just the same. And reds are what we have. So we use them.
Red maples are also called “swamp maples.” They live in swamps, bottomlands and uplands in moist soils. They are hearty trees, grow to 50-70 feet tall, and presumably get their name either from the scarlet color they turn in the fall, the color of the winged seeds they produce in the springtime, or both.
Red maples will tolerate a wider range of conditions than the sugar maple, including variations in the climate, so even for us amateur makers, it’s worth knowing your reds, even if you have plenty of sugars. Science suggests they will fare well despite our warming climate. So, as it happens, there’s a little good news to take with the bad.
The leaves of a red maple are from 2 to 6 inches wide. They look to me like they are 3 lobed rather than 5 lobed (lobes are the sections of the leaf), although technical definitions seem to allow for both. And they have a saw-toothed jagged edge to them with not a smooth curve anywhere. For me, that's the key.
Our sugarbush is very dense, so most of the leaves are far enough up in the air that I have to squint a bit to see them. But, because of the time of the year, I was able to find a few leaves around the base of my reds as proof that I had squinted effectively. And, as you can see, some were well on their way to scarlet.
And then there are the sugars. Sugar maples, so named because of the high concentration of sugar in their sap, grow even bigger than red maples, 60-80 feet, and naturally occur in rich, moist soils in uplands and valleys. In addition, however, sugar maples have been planted along roadways and at the edges of pasture lands for hundreds of years, and can still be found thus anywhere that farming is or ever was.
The leaf of a sugar maple is 3-5 inches wide and has 5 lobes, with a smooth, curved edge where the leaf of the red maple is jagged. This time of the year, sugar maples are likely to look multicolored, showing green as well as hints of yellow, orange and/or red as their chlorophyll recedes.
The few sugar maples we have are out in the open, and so have developed a crown that extends far enough toward the ground so that I don’t have to squint or forage for ground-leaves to make my identification. The sugar maple is so iconic. It's as easy as that.
So if you’re thinking about sugaring next spring, don’t underestimate the value of taking a short stroll through your woods to map out your sugar stand, now. Much like the beans and corn, this task just won't wait.
If your family is anything like ours, no matter how many gallons of maple syrup you made on your backyard boiler last Spring, it has long since been consumed by the time Fall rolls around. Maple rationing is hard! Time is tight. The kids are hollering for pancakes. And you keep forgetting to visit your local sugarhouse. Are you with me? You are at the supermarket, standing in front of that teeny-tiny local-food section, perusing your options. You see a bottle labeled “100% Organic Maple Syrup.” We’ve all been there.
“But, wait! Isn’t all Maple Syrup Organic,” you think, “regardless of whether it’s certified?”
“Not necessarily,” says Susannah Walsh Daloz, Former Director of UVM Farmer Training Program, Candidate for Masters in Food Systems at UVM, and our favorite go-to for all questions agricultural. That’s because “organic standards,” says Daloz, “aren’t just about avoiding synthetic pesticides and herbicides, practices that may not generally be used in maple syrup production,” but also regulate how farmers manage the land.
Sure enough, a quick Google search turned up this document, Vermont Organic Famers’ “Guidelines for Certification of Organic Maple Syrup & Sap.” According to Daloz, this was the right place to be, because Vermont Organic Farmers, LLC, an arm of NOFA Vermont, has the power to certify agricultural products, including maple syrup, as UDSA Organic. (There are similar setups in other states and regions around the country.) And, sure enough, there are LOADS of requirements that have nothing to do with prohibiting synthetic pesticides, herbicides, synthetic tree-marking paint, or the synthetic defoamers that can be used in boiling. In fact, in eleven pages, approximately ten pages deal with all sorts of other stuff having to do with sugarbush management.
For example, there is a group of requirements devoted to maintaining or achieving species diversity, including requirements that a sugar stand be composed of at least 20% non-sugar maple trees (red maple count), and that the genetic diversity of other “plants, animals and microorganisms” in the stand be protected.
There are requirements about how to ensure sugar-stand regeneration through management of mixed-age stands (sugar stands that have sugar maples of varying ages) or conversion of even-aged stands.
The organic sugar maker must abide by certain tree-thinning and harvesting techniques when removing trees from the stand, must minimize the damage such activities may cause to surrounding trees, and is prohibited from removing debris from the stand. In fact, “material smaller than 3 inches must be left in the woods.” According to the requirements, “[d]eviation from this standard could result in loss of certification.” Wow!
And then there are rules about managing the number, placement and condition of forest roads, limiting erosion of forest soils, maintaining water quality, and ensuring that any grazing animals permitted entry into the bush don’t cause lasting damage to it.
Guidelines as to how to tap the trees (as shallow as possible), where to tap the trees (staggered both vertically and horizontally from prior taps by specific distances) how many taps can be placed in a tree (never more than 2) and whether taps must be removed season-to-season (yes, always, no matter what) are quite lengthy, as well.
And we haven’t even gotten to sap storage (no galvanized anything, ever), syrup making (lead-free soldered boiling equipment only), bottle labeling (don’t get me started) and proper washing and disinfection of all of the above (summary: no matter what, rinse, rinse, rinse)!
At this point, I’m wondering if ANY maple syrup is organic unless labeled as such. And yet, I’ve spoken with several smallish sugar makers who claim that, aside from maybe laying off the synthetic defoamers, their farming techniques did not have to change at all in order to meet organic requirements, which they were happy enough to comply with in exchange for the premium they can charge for their product. Were they selling me magic beans, or what? Believable?
“I would absolutely credit those statements,” says Daloz. “Unlike other food production contexts, it was probably never part of the industrial model to use non-organic practices in the first place. The organic movement itself was organized for the purpose of forcing a shift away from practices that were likely generally not applied to traditional maple production.”
And, again, I say “wow!” That’s a whole lot of work to ensure a healthy, sustainable product. I guess that’s farming! Daloz agrees.
“It will be interesting to see,” adds Daloz, “as the maple industry shifts and consolidates, as new pests appear, and as the climate changes, whether non-organic practices become more prevalent in the industry. If they do, organic certification will be even more of a differentiator than it is today” she concludes.
So where does that leave me? Back in the supermarket, with a list as long as my arm. And I haven’t even picked out the maple syrup yet. Such is life. Wish me luck deciding!
Do you prefer "Lichen" or our own creation: "Experimental Blue?" How does WPA Yellow make you feel?
We're looking for some feedback on the prototypes for a new logo we've been working on in our post-sugaring-season-down-time. So, let those opinions rip! And thanks!
The third Milk Money campaign giving Vermonters the opportunity to discover and invest in local businesses, is live! And boy is it Vermonty!
When Kate and Justin McCabe moved their family to a house on 10 acres of trees - including maple - in Montpelier, they decided to try our hands at sugaring. They figured that with two small children, they went through a good amount of syrup, and needed an excuse to get outside when the winter sporting season had passed anyway. So they bought some buckets and spiles, read a book, and like so many before them, just went for it.
The first two years were not ideal. After rejecting the idea of an indoor boil, Kate and Justin decided to use the Thanksgiving Turkey's broiling pan on the propane grill. It took forever, and they spent as much or more in propane as they would have just buying the syrup outright, which was pretty depressing. During year two, they rested and homebrewed a batch of porter with our maple sap instead. That was less depressing, but didn’t result in quite as much outdoor time or offset the kids’ syrup requirements, either.
By year three, Kate and Justin were ready to try, try again, so they put in their twenty-five taps early in the new year. Justin looked everywhere for a backyard sap evaporator that didn’t cost a fortune, didn’t necessitate the construction of a sap house, and could be moved around when not in use, but ultimately came up empty. So he invented one and tested several versions before settling on a final design. Then, for a kick, Justin manufactured a dozen in the family garage. As it turned out, these first units all sold in less than two weeks to some very happy and satisfied customers all over New England and beyond! The Vermont Evaporator Company, and its Sapling, were born!
The Vermont Evaporator Company, LLC, located in Montpelier, Vermont, is a family-owned startup that manufactures small, home-scale sap evaporation units for the backyard sugaring enthusiast that are easy to use and available at a price point well below the industrial products on the market today. As an initial offering, VEC has developed the Sapling, a wood-fired barrel evaporator made from a retrofitted 55 gallon drum and a baffled stainless steel evaporating tray priced for the household at $795. Not just an evaporator, the Sapling doubles as a wood-fired grill in the off-season, and the development of an accessory package that will turn the unit into a smoker is underway!
Vermonters who want to learn more about the Vermont Evaporator Company opportunity can find investment details on the Milk Money website (www.MilkMoneyVT.com). The registration process is quick and easy for any adult with a Vermont driver's license.
Milk Money offers the opportunity for true “impact investing” since a dollar invested in a local business generates potential financial return as well as tangible social return on investment. By investing in a local business such as Vermont Evaporator Company, you will create new jobs and circulate wealth and build a stronger community that fosters new relationships between businesses and community members. The Milk Money platform serves as a meeting place for Vermonters to discover local investment opportunities such as Vermont Evaporator Company.
No maple? No problem!
Now that the leaves are in for the summer, it’s a good time to think about which trees you’d like to tap for next spring. While we usually associate sugar making with the sugar maple exclusively, there are many trees that produce sap that can be boiled down to syrup, including many non-maple varieties.
If you are up for a challenge, or just want to increase your maple syrup yield (like many amateurs, we tap a mixture of maples for our syrup), get your hands on a tree-identification book or two and some marking tape, and see how many on this (non-exhaustive) list are in your woods!
Black Maple Considered by some to be a subspecies of the sugar maple, the black maple produces sap that is similar in volume and sugar concentration to the sugar maple.
Red and Silver Maples Sap yields from these maples are lower in volume and sugar concentration than the sugar maple, but still commonly tapped. Note that these maples produce buds earlier in the spring than the sugar maple and that post-bud sap can produce syrup with a funny, tangy taste unsuitable for pancakes (but, in our opinion, passable for cooking).
Norway and Manitoba Maple / Boxelder These common maples produce significantly less-concentrated sap than the sugar maple but nevertheless can be tapped to make syrup.
Walnut Butternut trees (a.k.a. white walnut) produce a sap of a volume and concentration comparable to sugar maples; some say the taste of the resulting syrup is identical as well. Sap from the black walnut reportedly produces a sweet-but-astringent, nutty-flavored syrup. The heartnut, also in the walnut family, can also be tapped for syrup-making.
Birch While the paper birch has the most concentrated sap of the birch trees, it is still less than half as sweet as the sugar maple. Nevertheless, making birch syrup, variously reported to be sweet, spicy, and pungent, seems to be on the rise. The yellow birch, black birch, gray birch, river birch, and European white birches may also be tapped. Conveniently, birch sap usually runs after the maple sugaring season is over.
Sycamore Sycamores produce a less concentrated sap than the sugar maple that produces syrup reportedly tasting of butterscotch.