It’s early March and while the nights are still cold and frosty, the days are warm enough that you can feel the sun’s feeble heat. That “give and take” for cold nights and warm days creates a suction of sorts in maple trees that causes the sap to rise and flow and yield its sweet water. There aren’t any buds on the trees yet, but Yankees know the first sign of spring: galvanized buckets hanging from Maple trees along the side of the road.
While sweeteners have been around for at least three thousand years, it was the Native Americans who discovered that sugar could be tapped from trees long before Europeans arrived in North America, Native Americans were collecting “tree water” from maple trees and cooking it down over an open fire. Once they boiled the excess water from the sap, the remaining maple sugar was stored in cakes for the entire year. The Algonquin name for Maple sugar is Sinsibuckwud (“drawn from the wood”), while the Ojibway called it Sheesheegummavvis (“sap flows fast”).
The Native Americans taught the Pilgrims and early settlers throughout New England and Canada how to tap trees and make Maple Syrup. Indeed, maple syrup was part of the menu at the 1621 Thanksgiving in Plymouth. The Iroquois even celebrated the spring with “maple moon” or “sugar month” religious festivals that involved a maple dance performed when trees were tapped.
Maple sugar and Maple syrup were supplemented by sugar refined from sugarcane during the 1600s, and sugar production was the biggest and most lucrative industry in the Caribbean and Central America. By late 1600s, Europeans and people in the new colonies were drinking coffee and tea regularly, which led to increased demand for sugar. Throughout the 1600s, tremendous numbers of Africans were enslaved and brought to the Caribbean’s islands to work the sugar, tobacco, and cotton plantations, and the “sugar islands: of the Caribbean brought vast wealth to the French and English. As the slave trade grew, so did the antislavery movement. Interestingly, the movement to abolish the slave trade led to increased maple syrup production, which was an alternative to refined sugar. The March farmers Almanac of 1803, for example, admonished farmers to “prepare for making maple sugar, which is more pleasant and patriotic than that ground by the hand of slavery, and boiled down by the heat of misery.” During the Civil War, Maple syrup production became a matter of patriotism; not only did soldiers need food that wouldn’t spoil during shipment and storage, but the use of Maple Sugar to sweeten one’s foods was regarded as an act of protest by Northerners, since all the cane sugar and most of the molasses was produced in the South.
Today, most maple syrup – still a spring tradition steeped in ritual and romance – is produced in Vermont, New York, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and Canada. You wont find maple sugaring below 35 degrees latitude or west of 95 degrees longitude. Weather is the most significant role in sap production, with farmers relying on freezing nights and thaws during the day, which occurs anywhere from late February to early April. The sugar content of the sap is higher in a sugar maple than any other type of maple.
The federal government grades the syrup by color and flavor: grade A light amber, grade A medium amber, grade A dark amber and grade B. Which is best is a matter of taste. In general, the lighter the color, the more delicate the flavor. “First-run sap,” which is produced early in the season, tends to yield a light, delicate syrup. Most people prefer the richer maple flavor found in the Medium and Dark Amber grades. Individuals that use maple syrup in cooking frequently choose Grade B for its distinct taste.
So, next time you sit down to a pancake breakfast with Maple Syrup, remember the extensive heritage that has developed the sweet product that you enjoy today.