I am very excited to have had the opportunity to learn the process that is involved in making Maple Syrup at Ambler Farms this winter.
Ambler Farms is owned by the Town of Wilton, CT but run by Friends of Ambler Farms, a volunteer organization. Every winter, the farm offers a training session to teach people about the process involved in making maple syrup. After a brief training session, each family is assigned a sap bucket that they are in charge of collecting every week while the sap is running. They explained to us that the trees needed to be tapped within the first 2 inches of their bark… this was the “living wood” where the sap flows. Any further in and you would hit the “dead wood” and not get sap. Also, we were only able to tap trees that were 12 inches in diameter or larger. It was 1 bucket per every 12 inch diameter, so if you had a tree that was 24 inches in diameter, you could add two taps with buckets. The reason being is pretty simple… you don’t want to take too much of the trees food away from it.
My dear mother, who is gracious enough to join me on a lot of my crazy explorations in the past, as well as my husband and 2-year-old son, came with me to collect the sap.
Each day when we approached the sugar shack, the air was filled with a smokey, sweet aroma of boiling tree sap. I reflected on the fact that something like the aroma is EXACTLY why I love to participate in the actual process to learn about how something is done. The full experience of all the five senses combined with obtaining the knowledge of maple syrup making from a seasoned expert is priceless…
We would grab our bucket and trudged through the snow and/or mud while a cold winter wind blew, towards our assigned tree. We were surprised how quickly the bucket filled up with sap… And also surprised at how clear the sap was. The director had told us that the sap was running very well this year and informed us that if we found any water/ ice in our buckets to collect that as well. Sure enough, there was a thin layer of ice over the clear sap that had flowed into the bucket several times. The abundant sap this year is due to the weather – cold nights below freezing and warmer days – above freezing… but not too warm! If the days become too warm (in the 50′s) bacteria can begin to grow and eat away at the sugar in the sap, giving the sap more of a yellowed color. In the beginning of the season, we had the opportunity to drink a little bit of sap straight out of the tree after it was filtered. It tasted just like sugar-water and flowed like water… I had always imagined it would be thick, sticky sap that you see on trees sometimes but it wasn’t anything like that.
Each time we collected the sap, we then poured it into another bucket and carried it back to the sugar shack where they were getting ready to boil it down. The boiler was heated by a wood fire which gave off that smokey, sweet smell we noticed the first day we arrived. You need 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of maple syrup! We also learned that the different grades of maple syrup come from the time during the season that the sap was harvested. In the very beginning of harvest season, you get what is called “Vermont Fancy” and then Grade A syrup. This syrup is sweeter and lighter in color. Later in the season, towards the end, the sap produces a darker grade maple syrup – Grade B. This grade has a stronger maple flavor and is a favorite for cooking.
Towards the end of the season, Ambler Farms held an “Open House” inviting families to come see, learn about and taste test the maple syrup. They explained how the Native Americans first made maple syrup – They would carve out a log, pour in the sap, and then, using deer antlers, take red-hot stones out of a nearby fire and drop them into the sap to evaporate the water until they were able to get the thick maple syrup… I can only imagine how long THAT took!
When the colonists arrived, they adapted the native technique but used a caldron suspended over a fire to boil the sap down to a maple syrup.
Over all, this was a really cool experience! It could not get any more New England than this! A snow-covered farm with sap buckets hanging on every tree. A crisp, cold winter breeze blowing as we trudging through the snow with the fresh aroma of smoke and maple syrup making in the air… and the maple syrup?… Delicious!