Our cousin Ted has an answering machine. It's hooked up to his landline. Ted changes the greeting message on this ancient device with the seasons. In the summer, Ted is is out sailing on the pristine waters of the North Channel, in the winter he's deep in the bowels of the boreal forest chopping down trees for firewood. In the spring he's out collecting the sap from his Maple trees and boiling it down to the best gosh darn Maple Syrup you've ever tasted.
It's then, in late March or early April when the trees are all a drip, drip, drip with sticky, sweet sap that we make the drive to Ted’s Northern Ontario home to witness his answering machine message in action.
Step 1: Tap the Maple Trees
Ted has a gorgeous chunk of mixed forest on the Spanish River. A maple bush it is not. Ted's maple trees are spread throughout his many acres meaning that the tapping of the trees and subsequent collecting of the sap is done with the help of a snowmobile, ATV and a wee bit of bushwacking.
Small holes are drilled into the south side of the maple trees. This is because the south side gets the most sun which warms the sap, encouraging it to flow freely into awaiting buckets. The holes are hand drilled because that's just how it's done at Ted's. Spouts are then inserted into the holes and a metal wire is wrapped around each spout making a hook on which to hang the sap buckets. Some trees bear one bucket. Other (overachieving) trees manage more than 6 buckets! Some buckets are fancy silver ones with pre-fab holes perfect for the hooks. Other sap receptacles are empty coffee tins donated by neighbours! Maple syrup making at Ted's is still a community event!
Step 2: Collect the sap
In order for the sap to run, the temperature needs to be below 0 degrees Celsius overnight and above 0 degrees during the day. In late March this means we have to wait most of the morning for the sun to warm up the still-snow-covered forest before our work can begin. Thankfully this gives us lots of time to enjoy a leisurely pancake breakfast complete with ‘first run’ maple syrup that Ted has made in the days before we’ve arrived. Loaded with carbs and a dash of maple syrup for our coffees we are ready for a day of hard work! We head out in the afternoon with big blue jugs to collect the day's sap. In the heat of syrup season Ted heads out a second time in the evening to collect a second full bucket of sap from the most generous trees. The tapped trees are everywhere- spread out and hiding among the pines, cedars, diamond willows and oaks. Ted knows his forest like the back of his hand and leads us expertly down narrow paths, across the river and even up the road until all the buckets are found and all the sap is collected. With our huge jugs laden with fresh sap we hop back on the ATV and head home to the large outdoor fire that Uncle Joe has skillfully built.
Step 3: The boiling down of the sap.
Ted, being an experienced Maple syrup maker has, over the years, created an efficient set up for the boiling. An old gas tank has been cut in half and is re-purposed as the sap boiling receptacle and placed on a sturdy metal frame underneath which a fire is stoked. The sap is strained to filter out any nature bits as it is poured into the huge tank. It takes 40-50 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup!! So yes, many of trees have to give up a lot of sap for your pancake breakfast!
The remainder of the intense afternoon for us Maple syrup crafters involves sitting around the roaring fire, sipping on craft beer from New Ontario Brewing Co. in North Bay while commenting on the continually changing state of our sap. One of the great things about late March and early April in Northern Ontario are the remaining snow piles that act as super convenient outdoor fridges to keep our drinks nice and cold all day long! Thanks, Mother Nature! We taste the sap multiple times because we’re the bosses of this operation and it's fun to see how the sap transforms and intensifies as it boils down. The closer and closer to syrup consistency the more heightened our watch becomes. Possibly the most crucial part of this whole enterprise- we need to keep a close eye on the tank. We cannot let our precious almost-syrup, many hours into the making, burn on the bottom of the pan! That would be a disaster by any Canadian's standards!
With the guidance of our resident expert, we wait until the opportune moment to remove the sap from the barrel. It's almost syrup, but not quite yet! We filter the almost-syrup again through cheesecloth to prepare it for the final boiling. We conduct the final boiling of our almost syrup inside on the controllable heat of the stove. Once our sap has become so thick that it creates long sticky legs when ladled out with a spoon- we know its reached optimal syrup perfection and is ready for pancakes!
Step 4: Rejoice in the magic of Maple Syrup
We celebrate our success and cheers our efforts and the delicious maple syrup we have made with shots. Shots of maple syrup, of course. It's probably the best tasting, and definitely the most deserved shot I’ve ever taken. We are so happy with ourselves that we should probably do that cheersing part again. So, get your shot glasses out, fill them with that liquid gold and raise them up. Cheers to Canadian traditions! Cheers to maple trees! Cheers to good times in the great boreal forest with Ted the Maple syrup man!