it started as a "what the heck-- why not give it a try?" sort of project. after returning from a lovely afternoon workshop at hinkle farmstead with cosmo, learning how to tap maple trees and boil down
syrup, i began gazing at the giant maple tree in our front yard with renewed interest.
turns out, she's a sugar maple! and, she is HUGE. so i picked up a food-grade, five-gallon bucket, plus a small (2.5 qt) metal bucket at a hardware store. i was relieved to find i had a drill bit big enough to make a hole in the metal bucket, large enough to fit over the tap i took home from the workshop (also called a spile). then we found a good spot to tap the tree (cosmo helped me select it) and we drilled our hole. cosmo and i hammered the tap into the hole, hung the bucket on the hook and waited for the sap to start dripping.
the ideal temperatures for sap flow are nights in the twenties, days in the forties. we started getting exactly that range, and the sap was flowing. for days, weeks, we emptied our little bucket into our big bucket 'til we had 5 gallons of sap. then we boiled that down to about 1.5 gallons. after we collected 5 more gallons, we boiled that bucket down to about a gallon. we stored the jars of concentrate in the root cellar portion of our basement until we were ready to finish it.
yesterday, we combined the two concentrates and finished the syrup. all day liquid simmered on the stove, steamed up our windows, moistened the walls and sweetened the air. after returning from our evening walk to dinner and back, we started the final stage. we transfered the reduced sap to a smaller pan, filtering it through some clean felted wool, then started boiling non stop, and taking the temperature every 5 minutes.
unless you have a hydrometer, which measures the sugar content of liquids, the only way you know your syrup is finished is the boiling temperature. as the water evaporates, the boiling temperature increases. you will have about a 66% sugar content when the syrup is boiling at 219F (7 degrees above the boiling temperature of water). after nearly days of uneventful boiling, this last phase moves rather quickly, and you have to be vigilant to prevent you syrup from scorching (can you imagine the devastation, after all that effort?!). the guy who taught our workshop suggested gluing your shoes to the floor in front of the stove. that is pretty much what carl and i did. i kept sticking my mitt-covered hand into the pot with the digital thermometer to check the temperature. we have a candy thermometer, but it is not precise enough. "somewhat over 200" is too vague for maple sugaring. when we finally hit 219, we quickly removed the syrup from the stove and poured it through the felt filter again, into clean jars.
we ended up with 1 quart plus 12oz from 10 gallons of raw sap. we only expected to get about a quart, so we were thrilled! the finished syrup is dark, rich and delicious, in fact, after trying some on a stack of pancakes this morning, cosmo declared it the "best syrup in the world." time to go hug a tree.