A bowl of Cortlands waiting to be pied. Our secret ingredient? Apple cider syrup - another American tradition!
There's this thing you might not know about yet. It's called apple cider syrup (a.k.a. "boiled cider," or "apple molasses."). Once a commonplace way to preserve apple cider and its nutrients throughout the long winter months in hill farms and homesteads across New England and westward, apple cider syrup is currently completing its journey from traditional pantry staple to cultural artifact to commercial commodity.
Food nerds (guilty) can find out more about the rise and fall of apple cider syrup at Slow Food USA. The culinarily curious can get a taste of some by visiting Woods Cider Mill in person or online. (They call it "boiled cider," there.) And the rest of you need only know that you can make your own by (1) pressing apples or buying cider, and (2) boiling it down to one-seventh of its volume either in your kitchen or, for large quantities, your Sapling Evaporator or other backyard maple sugaring equipment.
Apple cider syrup can be poured over pancakes, waffles and ice cream, makes good marinades, sauces and salad dressings, and is added to apple desserts to make them more flavorful. It is also a tasty addition to hot and cold drinks. Where apple cider syrup recipes are concerned, have no fear, the internet provides!
We first learned about apple cider syrup from Audra, a customer of ours. Audra purchased a Sapling Evaporator Pan from us shortly after moving to a homestead that came complete with dozens of ancient apple trees and space in the garage to store her heirloom cider press.
Audra grew up in Weathersfield, Vermont, near the famed Wood's Cider Mill, and made maple syrup every spring with her family. In addition, there was a family cider press. In fact, all three of her brothers, as well as at least one of their college buddies, went on to found and run apple-related businesses, including Brown Brother's Cider (motto: "we squeeze to please," no joke!), White Mountain Cider Company and Champlain Orchards. (That's what I call making a living in rural America, people! Woot!) So picking, pressing and preserving apples was also a family affair, and Audra was known to can up to twenty gallons of apple cider per year!
"When I saw your Sapling," says Audra "a light went off in my brain! I knew about the process [of making apple cider syrup] and thought what an awesome way to preserve cider and create a unique local product. Your Sapling is such a perfect size for a small homestead."
Why, thank you! Unfortunately, the apple year was crummy in central Vermont this year, at least for us homesteaders. But "If we get a good apple year soon," says Audra, "I hope to work on some of my own creations. I plan to experiment with herbal and berry infusions. We have a growing farm and produce an increasing array of herbs and berries as well as keep bees and harvest honey."
As to how Audra enjoys apple cider syrup, "I usually use it as an extra special ingredient," she says. "So far we have added it to recipes to give them an apple kick. I like to pour it over meat when baking for a unique flavor, [and] it is tasty on ice cream and in salad dressing. [I] [a]dd it to apple pie or crisp, muffins etc. I know I haven't tried half of the possibilities."
Once again, we're so glad we took the opportunity to get to know - and learn from - one of our great customers. If she'll have us, we'll check back in with Audra after next year's (cross fingers) bumper apple crop and let you know how her experiments pan out.
Until then, if you happen to have access to pressed apples and are itching to use your backyard maple sugaring equipment, give apple cider syrup a go!
Maple syrup and apple syrup: two traditional, American sweeteners.
Lunching with perfection here on cobb salad with maple mustard vinaigrette. To emulate, add to your favorite hearty fall salad: one parts each of maple syrup, Dijon mustard, and red wine vinegar to three parts olive oil. Seriously easy. Seriously yummy.
If I ever write a cookbook, I will call it "Cooking without Thinking." Other titles under consideration include "How to Cook Well Without Trying too Hard," or "Cooking Well, Cooking Urgently." I particularly like this last one, actually. Because this is pretty much how I roll in the kitchen on an every-day, feeding-a-growing-family basis. Whatever your life is like during the day, if you do food prep for a family at the end of it, I know you are hearing me right now.
There are recipes - goodness yes, recipes abound! - but we have an open relationship. That is to say, there is very little measuring going on, there are plenty of ingredient substitutions, and, as a result, the children have no idea that today's chicken pot pie might - in another household - be expected to taste like the one they were served several weeks ago.
It's a beautiful thing! There are failures, I will not lie. A certain vegan cauliflower curry prepared during the first trimester of my second pregnancy comes to mind (shocker!). But a dozen years in, I'm settling into a routine of success born of practice, practice, practice and some go-to culinary habits. I sat down and brainstormed all of my maple-related habits today and - glory be - I have at least ten! That's blog-worthy, people!
So here are ten ways I use maple without thinking about it. And a warning to the chemists, a.k.a. bakers, out there - brace yourselves, there's going to be a whole lot of "to taste!"
Good Eating to You!
1. Secretly Wow Chili
This is my favorite. Making chili, for me, is like: (1) chop and saute what you have of the following (onions, garlic, bell pepper, uncooked meats), (2) add what you have of the following (canned beans of pretty much any kind, frozen corn, leftover meats), and (3) simmer for a while with however much of whatever canned tomato products are around, red wine if you have it, and oregano and cumin. But sometime before serving, I add three things: unsweetened cocoa powder, cinnamon, and maple syrup. To taste, of course. It's pretty awesome.
2. Maple Pizza Sauce
The only other main-course item on this list is pizza sauce, which, for me, is a "to taste" combo of tomato paste, Italian herbs, and maple syrup. Just enough to take the edge off the tang. Love it.
3. Maple Glazed Nuts
Either for sitting around with drinks or as a salad or dessert topper, you can't go wrong with maple glazed nuts. I've done almonds. I've done walnuts. My favorite is probably pecans. Maybe the next time the pantry is lean, I'll give peanuts a go. Here's how I do it: I throw some nuts into my big cast-iron pan and turn it to medium, medium-high, depending on how soon I want to have to pay attention. I Stir for several minutes until I see the nuts brown and even blacken. I pour in some maple syrup and stir like heck until all the nuts are coated. I turn off the heat, but keep stirring until the activity in the pan slackens. If I can fend off the glazed-nut fans, I let them sit in the pan for a bit, scrape them off, and serve cool.
4. Maple Mustard Vinaigrette
I credit this recipe and the next two for the fact that my kids love salad. This dressing also requires no measurements, just a vague sense of how much volume you'd like to end up with. Simply whisk one part each of maple syrup, Dijon mustard and red wine vinegar with three parts olive oil. Done and done.
5. Maple Balsamic Vinaigrette
Again, no measuring here. Whisk one part maple syrup and one part balsamic vinegar (try white balsamic if you have it - it's even better) with three parts olive oil. Bam.
6. Red Cabbage Slaw
Add shredded red cabbage to some stuff of other colors, like shredded or chopped carrot, parsnip, fennel or finely chopped fresh parsley. Add raisins if you're into it. Douse generously with maple syrup, apple cider vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper, and red pepper flakes. Let sit for 20 minutes and serve with slotted spoon. Mayo need not apply.
7. Chocolate Milk / Hot Cocoa
Impress the youth with your "oh but I can make that" solution when the Hershey's / Swiss Miss runs out!
For chocolate milk - and this is clever - take a gallon jug that has only the desired volume of milk left in it, and funnel in conservative and equal amounts of cocoa powder and maple syrup. Shake vigorously. Shake again. Entertain the tots with all that shaking. (Or think ahead and just let it sit.) Taste. Adjust. Serve.
For the hot stuff, simply combine equal parts maple and chocolate over heat, add milk, cook to desired hotness, and serve.
Bottle of red wine not tasting the same as when you opened it last week? No problem. Slice up some citrus fruits and plunk in a pitcher with the dregs of the bottle. Add maple syrup to taste. Serve diluted with club soda or not. Pretty not bad.
9. Mulled Wine
Bad bottle of red wine but it's not summer anymore? That's cool. Let's make it hot! Put it over low heat with whatever of the following you have (cinnamon stick, whole cloves, whole nutmeg, whole star anise, cardamom pod) and add maple syrup. Mull it, and spike it with bourbon or rum to serve.
10. Maple Whipped Cream
Next time you are making whipped cream from scratch, use a titch of maple to sweeten instead of sugar. Yummy, impresses the guests, and no sand-between-the-teeth feeling.
City folk want to know: who ARE these people who make their own maple syrup in their backyards? Well, for one thing, we're people who live . . . here!
There's something we've been wondering lately from both personal and professional perspectives: Who ARE we backyard sugar makers? Where do we come from? What kind of syrups do we make? Why do we engage in this admittedly extreme hobby?
So we asked! And about 50 of you responded. And now we know a little more than we used to. We thought you might like to know too! So here goes.
First of all, we syrup makers are diverse in age, ranging from our mid-20s to mid-70s! Like hunting, fishing, gardening, and keeping poultry and bees, this traditional activity seems to be a lifetime sport. Does this help us focus our advertising? Absolutely not - you people are killing me. But can we imagine sugaring into our seventies? You bet! On balance, we'll take it as a fair trade.
Another area of diversity: what kind of syrups we make. Predictably, an overwhelming majority of those surveyed make maple syrup. As do we. But a surprising number of people (4) responded that they make black walnut syrup! If you know nothing at all about that, you are in good company, and, having had no idea it was so popular, we promise to blog about it by and by. A few people responded that they make apple cider syrup, and other responses included birch, spruce tip, dandelion, and hickory. That's quite a variety!
While the size of our operations vary, most of us produce between one and five gallons of syrup per year, and an overwhelming majority of us do it without the benefit of a sugar shack or outbuilding. Our equipment is quite varied, ranging from pedestrian crock pots to sophisticated drop-flue or raised-flue pans and also including indoor and outdoor wood stoves, cooking pots, hotel pans, various propane burners, bricks and cider blocks, campfires, homemade barrel evaporators, and, of course, a few of our products. Just Google images for any iteration of "backyard maple syrup making" and you'll see what I mean. We're a handy, frugal, resourceful lot, we are.
And we sugar for a wide variety of reasons, as well. For many of us, sugaring is just plain fun. For others, sugaring is an activity enjoyed with family, and, for some, a way to remember friends and family members that have passed on, connect with younger generations, or a way to celebrate a birthday. A lot of us find maple sugaring a good way to get ourselves and our children outside in late winter, an antidote to mud season, or an activity that forces us to relax. Some of us enjoy the solitude of the woods, and the intimacy-with-place that sugaring engenders. Several of us use sugaring as a teaching tool, many of us give away our wares as gifts, and, of course, we all love the taste of our various syrups! One respondent called the activity "addictive," and another quipped, wisely, that "[y]ou have to experience it to know."
And then there's geography. While nearly half of the respondents were from Vermont, also represented were sugar makers from Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, Ohio, Ontario, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Wisconsin. But even this extensive list is incomplete. Sugar country is larger than you thought, isn't it!?
The leaves are turning colors here in the north country! It's officially fall! Time to get out there and tag the maples you will tap in the spring while they are still easily identifiable!
It's walk-in-the-woods time here in sugar country! The leaves have started to turn, the air is crisp, the world is letting out the annual sigh of relief. Almost rest time. A great time for you to make good on your goal of identifying some maples (or some more maples) for your backyard maple sugar making operation!
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, last weekend, I grabbed a volume and took a little walk.
We sugar mostly with red maples. The sugar content of the sap is lower than with sugar maples, 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.
The leaf of the red maple has three lobes with jagged, saw-tooth edges. Red maples are also commonly tapped to make maple syrup.
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, I was able to find a few leaves around the base of my reds as proof that I had squinted effectively.
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.
Sugar maples are the best trees for maple syrup making!
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. (In the Fall, 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 the Canadian flag! It's as easy as that.
The leaf of the sugar maple has five lobes and smooth, swooped edges.
No reds or sugars? No problem! There are several other trees in the maple family that will do.
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. Sap yields from silver maples are lower in volume and sugar concentration than the sugar maple, but are still commonly tapped for backyard syrup making. Norway maples and boxelders produce significantly less-concentrated sap than the sugar maple but nevertheless can be (and are!) tapped to make syrup.
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. Before you know it, those leaves will be falling!
When setting out to remove invasive species, bring loppers, a hand saw, burlap, twine, a handcart, and a good-natured assistant!
It was more than a year ago when, inspired by a talk by one of Vermont's county foresters, we started this series of blog posts about how ordinary landowners can care for their sugar woods in a changing climate.
Since then, we have covered mapping invasive species and cultivating an ideal suite of tree species. That leaves removing invasive species and protecting riparian buffers and other critter habitat. We'll cover the former today, and the latter very soon.
You may recall that among the peskiest invasive species in sugar country are buckthorn, honeysuckle, and barberry, all three of which we found in our own woods over the summer. According to the Nature Conservancy, the best time to remove at least two of the three is fall, so we stayed our hand until now.
Thankfully, this delay gave us time to connect with Emily Seifert, a naturalist who spent several years as a Stewardship Manager for the Nature Conservancy, managing nature preserves by, among other things, monitoring and removing invasive species from the land. Emily knows a lot about the woody plants that have invaded the forests of sugar country, how to identify them, and how to safely remove them, so one cool morning, we set out on the homestead with our invasive map to have a look.
We are proud to report that Emily confirmed that we had correctly identified our invasives in all instances! Huzzah! We have not lead you astray! While you are likely to find, like we did, that honeysuckle and barberry are easy to identify, buckthorn is harder, and we are more than a little impressed with ourselves that we got it right. As we've discussed, mature plants will have fairly recognizable blue berries in late summer and early fall, but at other times of the year, and for immature plants, you have to really concentrate on leaf shape, color, and position. Emily recognized even our immature buckthorn immediately as such, of course, but passed along these hints for beginners: the underside of buckthorn bark is bright orange and even the immature plants may sport a thorn or two.
From left to right: the bright-orange insides of buckthorn bark, a buckthorn thorn where two twigs meet on a mature tree (to the left of the lower index finger), and the brown, hollow insides of an invasive honeysuckle stem.
Emily also taught us how to check to make sure that the honeysuckle on our property was invasive, as opposed to the native variety out there. It was. How did Emily know? The inside of the stem of an invasive honeysuckle is hollow and brown.
Having passed identification with flying colors, it was now time for removal and disposal. Emily agreed that it was best to remove invasive plants from the ground in their entirety - roots and all - as long as the infestation covers a modest surface area. (Root removal of infestations that cover a large surface area can leave bare ground ripe for other invasives to take root. Such removal on steep slopes can lead to soil erosion.) Emily said that for mature plants, however, cutting and covering with black plastic or a double layer of burlap was a respectable, next-best method. When pulling, Emily noted, it is important to get the entire root system as these plants propagate from the roots. Complete covering of all above-ground parts of the plant is necessary for the same reason, she said. Other notes? Pat yourself on the back for punctuality! Early detection and removal is key to controlling invasives!
We ended up using both methods. While we were able to pull up all of our honeysuckle, most of our barberry, and our immature buckthorns by the root, the roots of one barberry bush and our mature buckthorn tree weren't budging. So we lopped or sawed them off as close to the ground as possible, and covered with a double layer of burlap, tied on with twine or staked down with sticks. Our intent is to pull our map out and monitor those areas each spring and fall to ensure that our removal was complete and our covers stay in place.
From left to right: a "Charlie Brown" white pine has been replanted where an invasive shrub honeysuckle was pulled out by the roots, and a mature buckthorn is cut down and covered to discourage re-sprouting.
Emily reassured us that bagging our invasives and bringing them to the dump was not necessary, as we had feared it would be, and was, in fact, a last-resort method. And, while it doesn't seem to be in any of the literature on safe disposal of invasives, she agreed that destroying these woody weeds in a bonfire - our plan - was probably fine. Emily did caution us against taking the invasives off-site - in Vermont it is actually illegal to do so unless you really know what you are doing - and noted that composting invasives can result in more infestations if not done according to certain best practices.
So - taking care not to spread berries around as we went - another one of Emily's tips - we loaded our invasives into a garden cart, wheeled them to the fire circle, and had ourselves a campfire. Our efforts resulted not only in potentially healthier sugar woods, but also a sugar woods that is easier to navigate - honeysuckle and barberry can get so thick they make the woods hard to traverse - and less prone to tick infestation. According to Emily, studies show that dense barberry infestations give cover to carriers of ticks and thus can result in higher tick populations. Not only that, but, in the long run, our sugar maples now have a better chance of reproducing now that they aren't competing with a thick carpet of invasives.
So, with a little more hope, and a little more connection to the land than we had before, we look forward to learning more soon and passing it right along to you in our fourth and final installment on caring for your sugar woods: protecting riparian buffers and other critter habitat.
Invasive honeysuckle, barberry and buckthorn, getting ready to go up in flames at the family fire circle.
Not to be confused with "sugar woods," a.k.a. the "sugar bush," or "sugar stand," "sugar wood" refers to the fuel you need to power your wood-fired evaporator.
It's 90 degrees in New England, so, naturally, it's time for us to put in supplies for next Spring's backyard maple sugar making operation. If we were good little Vermonters, of course, we would have done this task the very minute the snow melted. Clearly, we're still assimilating.
This is easy enough for us to do, we've got chainsaws, a log-splitter, and the bucked-up remnants of 50 or so giant white pine trees we had removed from our property several years ago to make room for the sun (and protect the house). We've heard from many customers that their sugar-wood comes from trees that fall on their property naturally. But what if you don't have all those trees? And what if you're a first-time sugar maker and don't know anything? Well, keeping in mind we're on year four of this journey ourselves, here's what we know.
First, on quantity and composition. For our annual 25-50 tree operation, we use between one-half and one cord of wood - almost exclusively soft wood. Any wood can be used to sugar, but most sugar makers agree that softwood - which burns fast and hot and then disappears from your wood box - rather than hardwood - which burns cooler, slower and sticks around in the form of coals - should make up the bulk of one's supply.
What about width and length? You want to split your wood down until it is nice and thin - say, the width of your upper-arm, a two-by-four, or a big baseball bat. And while length depends upon the size of your wood box (for the Sapling Evaporator, we recommend no longer than 24 inches), it is true that longer cuts of wood will help you even out the heat under your pan. Also, less cuts mean less work.
How about timing? Summer really is the time to split, stack, and cover your sugar wood supply, so that, come Spring, it is nice and dry. I wasn't kidding about using "snow out" as your cue, though. We heard from customers that were putting in their sugar wood as early as April this year! And, not to fear, plenty of us wait until the fall, "better late than never" being an appropriate adage for this circumstance.
But what if you don't have the wood? Get on the phone and call around to the saw mills in your area. Ask them if they have "slab" wood (slab wood is what's left over when a round tree is squared off to make boards) or scrap wood for sale, and if they deliver. Within 5 minutes of hopping on the phone, I was able to find two sawmills within 60 miles of my home that would sell me such wood. One for $25 per truckload and one for $10. Both "you pick," so to speak, but still, not bad!
Failing that, get creative! Local businesses often have stacks of wooden pallets year-round with which they would be happy to part. Pallets are dry, and come split for you. And, although you will need to hack them apart and cut the pieces to length, you can do so with simple tools like a crowbar and handsaw as long as you've got enough energy or help. (Just make sure you put those nails in the metal recycling when you're done!) It's been done. And by our customers, to boot.
That's really all there is to it! And with that, it's back to the wood pile for me!
Peaches canned in homemade maple syrup: a north-south, east-west delicacy.
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 three years ago that one could even grow peaches in Vermont.
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 kind, wild boys. 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, South Dakota. 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 prairie summer to any time of the year, over the years, first for my husband, then for us both, and then for our children.
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. 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 on the love.
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.
A very young red maple seedling rescued from the garden and waiting to be planted in our sugar woods. Cultivating red maples in your sugar woods can help diffuse the virulence of pests, such as tent caterpillars, that would otherwise wreak havoc on your sugar stand.
In this blog, we have identified three simple steps backyard sugar makers can take to care for their sugar woods in a changing climate. We've covered the first part of step 1: eradicating invasive species (mapping invasive species on your property) and will cover the second part, removal, in its appropriate season (which is fall, thank goodness - it's been so dang HOT!) That leaves (2) cultivating an ideal suite of tree species, and (3) protecting riparian areas and other habitat to support diversity of non-tree species. Today we are going to cover step two.
Cultivating an ideal suite of tree species sounds a bit intimidating - and it certainly can be as complicated as you'd like to make it, says Nancy Patch, County Forester for the Vermont counties of Franklin and Grand Isle. But it doesn't have to be that way. Remain calm and read on.
First, some background. It may come as news to you (as it did to me) that there are different types of forests, even here in sugar country. (Psst. Do you know how big sugar country is? See the map below to find out.) Well, there are. And the kind that has sugar maples in it is called northern hardwood forest. Chances are, you are in a northern hardwood forest if you see sugar maple, yellow birch, American beech and white ash. Eastern hemlocks and white pine are also commonly found there. The northern hardwood forest has sub-types; all of these sub-types contain basically the same suite of eight tree species with a couple of additions and/or subtractions. Five or six of these sub-types contain sugar maple. And the best site conditions for sugar maple occur in what is known as the rich northern hardwood forest.
A forest community is rooted (no pun) in its soil. And the rich northern hardwood forest, as its name suggests, has nutrient-rich soil that supports a highly-productive forest dominated by sugar maple, but also including white ash, basswood, sweet birch, bitternut hickory, black cherry, yellow birch, hophornbeam, butternut, and sometimes American beech. The rich northern hardwood forest supports a wide variety of non-tree species as well, including the easily-identifiable "indicator species" of blue cohosh, maidenhair fern, wild leek and duchman's breeches.
Left to its own devices, as in any other ecosystem, the flora in the rich northern hardwood forest balance in to a supportive companionship - a co-beneficial relationship - that, in part through its support of fauna, helps it resist pests and disease. Think companion planting in your garden - same concept. In other words, when the rich northern hardwoods forest contains its ideal suite of trees, it operates at its healthiest and most resilient level. When one or more species are selectively cut, or selectively planted, it doesn't. Health is good, obviously. And resiliency is what any living system needs to cope with change - including forests and climate change.
So, this means that your job as custodian of your forest is to figure out which sub-type of northern hardwood forest you live in, figure out if you have the ideal proportion of the ideal species of trees on your forest, and, if not, selectively cut, plant and/or cultivate so that you do. Easy, right?
Not, really. No. Finding out what sub-type you have will take some research, and the true answer lies in analysis of the soil, notes Nancy. And do you know how to take a statistically significant survey of the number of each tree species you have? Because I don't. Not to mention that foresters tend to work on the 250-acre level, so goodness knows whether a five, ten, or twenty-five acre plot of land can even be analyzed this way. I didn't even want to ask.
This is when it is good to know a forester like Nancy. "Homeowners can make an impact by just focusing on variability," she says. According to Nancy, it is enough to simply walk in your woods and catalog all of the species of trees you find there - including the understory (young trees). If what you find there is reasonably diverse - say around eight species - that's great. You can care for your woods by just not cutting all or most of any species down. If what you find is not monocultural (sugar maple only) but is non-diverse (only a few species of trees) "consider planting an oak or two," suggests Nancy. Oaks are great companion plants in northern hardwood forest; they are great habitat for moths, butterflies and song birds and provide a food source for bear, turkey and deer. They are also projected to do well in a warming climate (or a "climate-change winner" as Nancy says). If you do have a sugar maple monoculture, according to Nancy, "planting hemlocks and red maples can help diminish the virulence of tent caterpillar invasions." Just take a couple of hours to look around, find out how diverse your woods are, and act accordingly. I can DO that!
So, the other day, when I should have been typing (I had planned to be typing. I needed to be typing!), I just couldn't type. So I took the dog outside with The Sibley Guide to Trees. (What I wanted to have was Forest Trees of Vermont, but, alas, not in our local public library. It is now on my Christmas list.) And we ambled for a couple of hours. We saw mature red maple, sugar maple, yellow birch, paper birch, eastern hemlock and American beech throughout our ten acres, and some white ash and northern red oak in the understory. Near the house, there were also big white pine and little quaking aspen, staghorn sumac, striped maple and smooth alder. With eight or more species of trees, I'm solidly in the "already have diversity" camp, which is great, even though I don't boast a piece of the rich northern hardwood forest. So I can help my woods stay resilient by just staying the course. Whew. Love it when that happens.
So if you should be typing, had planned to be typing, and need to be typing, but just can't, get out there in the woods and look around for a while to see what you can see - you'll probably be glad you did!
Sugar country is bigger than you think. People make maple syrup in their backyards in twenty U.S. states and most of Canada!
“The Maple Sugar Book” by Helen and Scott Nearing is an extensively researched, interesting, and surprisingly funny history of maple sugar making.
In true grass-is-always-greener fashion, summer is sometimes a time for dreaming about when it isn’t so hot out. (Guilty.) In addition to keeping the garden weed-free, moving the chickens to their late-summer quarters (away from the garden) and slowly ticking off the rest of the homestead to-dos, we've also started reading up in preparation for our next sugaring season.
“The Maple Sugar Book” by Helen and Scott Nearing, with its treatment of the history and practice of maple sugaring, is our pick for this summer’s maple beach read. It’s extensively researched, interesting, surprisingly funny, and, in and of itself, a fascinating slice of history.
Like so many to follow in the intervening decades, the Nearings left the urban life for an old Vermont homestead and, (like so many to follow in the intervening decades!) with the benefit of an inheritance, connections and some off-the-land income, struck out to make a living on the farm. For them, the journey back to the land started in 1932, at the apex of the Great Depression, spanned the tumult of the last-half of the twentieth century, and continues by way of "The Good Life Center," a nonprofit Helen created on the coast of Maine before her death in 1995.
The book is separated into three sections; the longest and of most practical use to the hobby sugar maker being the second, a 135-page chronicle of exactly how the Nearings and their peers made maple products around 1950. With chapters for identifying and cultivating prime sugar bushes, choosing the proper equipment, understanding how, why and when sap runs, tapping, storing and processing sap, and making syrup and sugar, this section - despite some obvious anachronisms (a certain tolerance for monoculture and wooden buckets, for example) - is full of practical information and is excellent company for today's backyard maple syrup maker.
While a reader should feel free to skim or skip chapter 9, regarding marketing maple products in the 1950s (What? No Instagram farms?) and the book's third section, an extended opinion piece about maple's place in making country life superior to city life (tending to be preachy, out-of-date and narrow), one should not miss the authoritative history of maple syrup that is contained in section one. Along with detail about how native North Americans obtained and processed sap and stored and served maple sugar, the Nearings throw in precious historical tidbits about how American mothers pacified restless children by feeding them maple sweets (they did it too!) how European settlers experienced maple (it was almost universally love-at-first-taste), took to its cultivation (quickly) and sometimes claimed to have discovered it first (a claim the Nearings skillfully debunk). Finally, don't forget to take a look at the maple recipes contained at the end of the book, including for maple sugar french toast, maple fudge and a method for making maple icing.
While the book was not popular at the outset, it is now. The 50th Anniversary addition of this gem is widely available and a must-not-miss for any hobby sugar maker with an appetite for learning. So pull up a beach chair or picnic blanket, grab a cold beverage, dig your heels into the sand or grass, and grab a copy from your local library, bookstore, or internet. Happy reading!
Family members of ours, depicted here sugaring the old-fashioned way, with buckets and a team of oxen. Was the syrup they made organic?
If your family is anything like ours, no matter how many gallons of maple syrup you made on your backyard boiler last Spring, it is close to being entirely consumed by the time August 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 document to find, 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 sugar stand 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 by these standards 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!
On Teaspoon of Sugar, we write about maple sugaring, maple syrup, starting and running a small business, and living the sweet life here in beautiful, downtown Montpelier, Vermont.