We can smell the maple syrup as soon as we step out of the car. I can see smoke rising up out of the trees and the sun warms my face. I leave my jacket in the car and Danny, Noah, Mateo and I duck inside the family home. Auntie Lynn looks up from the maple pecan pies she is taking out of the oven and greets us. She barely bats an eyelash as we unload our car (about half the entire contents of our home) and trek our belongings to the guest room.
"For the month of March this isn't my home", she says in a resigned matter, "It's a community centre."
We've all come for one thing: sugaring off. During these warm days and cool nights, the sap is running in Lynn and Marc's 25 acre 'sugar bush'. The maple trees are tapped, and the collecting of the precious sap has begun.
On the kitchen counter sits an industrial sized canning pot with at least two gallons of dark maple syrup in it. A ladle hangs on the side and a jar of spoons next to the pot invites tasters.
"Try some", smiles Lynn, "I boiled it last night."
Unprepared for just how good it is going to be, I dip into the pot and spoon out a generous tablespoon. It's like nothing I've ever had before. Now, as a rule, we only use pure maple syrup in our house (there is never any Aunt Jemima hiding in my pantry) but even store-bought pure syrup doesn't come close to this.
"What? What? How...?" I splutter.
I think Lynn gets this reaction often, for she didn't seem surprised by it and explained that the difference is due to the fact that the sap was boiled in the traditional method over an open wood fire in the middle of the forest. I've camped enough in my life to get that; bake a potato at home and bake one in the ashes of a campfire and they are worlds apart. Such is the case here; underneath the sweet and true maple taste of this syrup is another level of flavor so complex it makes you shake your head in wonder. Not surprisingly, though, everything tastes better straight out of the ground--or in this case, the tree--than it does off of a shelf.
I surreptitiously tuck the spoon into my pocket (one wants to always be prepared, doesn't one?) and we exit the house, strike out into the woods, past an ancient outhouse, following the slushy trail and the barking of dogs.
We enter the clearing and greet everyone; someone takes Mateo from my arms and another person offers me some chili. I'm actually not that hungry yet, but when I hear that it is Uncle Marc's homemade venison-maple chili, I accept the offer. It's incredibly flavourful, smoky & sweet--and yes, he harvested the deer himself. Next to a small campfire, I take a seat on a freshly cut section of log, and size up the stove. It's a big mamma and there's a raging fire inside, fueled by the wooden pallets.
On top of the stove is a massive metal box, bigger than most bathtubs, and it's half full with maple sap. Steam rises from the top as the sap boils rapidly, reducing itself to the precious syrup. It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup, and out here in the fresh spring air is where the magic happens.
Buzzed from the jolt of maple from the house, and warmed by the chili, I'm raring to go. Noah has disappeared with his grandpa and, childless for the moment, I jump at a chance to tap some trees. A group if us head into the woods, armed with a drill, buckets and taps.
The ancestral process is surprisingly elementary. Choose the side of the trunk that faces the sun; drill a hole (at a slight upwards angle so the sap can flow down); place a tap firmly in the hole; hang a bucket on the hook below the tap; cover the bucket with a lid. Then you wait. On a warm day like today, the sap is running fast and a bucket can fill within hours.
I hear voices through the woods and recognize Noah's among them. In our wandering we've happened upon a frozen swamp with a group of aunts and uncles on it, just enjoying the day. It's a charming spot, the smooth ice spreading through the trees creating many little frozen islands. Christmas lights encircle the pond and I suddenly wish it was night and I had my skates. Robert Frost's famous poem "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening" comes to mind especially the line...'Between the woods and frozen lake'.
As I step onto the ice to approach the small group, I notice that most of the activity is centered around a small table set up in the middle of the pond. Curious. The table holds a bottle of vodka, a liter of cream, a bottle of fresh maple syrup and a stack of small paper cups. I'm beginning to understand why this is such a popular spot!
I'm not going to pass up this golden opportunity; after all, one doesn't happen upon a minibar in the forest very often, and I accept a drink. It's not just the beautiful natural setting that makes me rate this cocktail among my top ten, it is truly one to be savored; the sheer quality of the pure syrup leaves little to be desired as it plays a bold lead role in the drink.
There's not a car to be heard or a house to be seen; truly, this is roughing it with side benefits.
To be continued....
If anyone knows the official name for this most excellent drink, please let me know!
Recipe for Canadian Maple Cocktail:
Have the following ingredients chilled:
1 oz pure Canadian maple syrup
1 oz coffee cream (10%)
1 oz vodka
Pour maple syrup into a glass. Top with cream, followed by the vodka. Stir with a small tree branch (because what else are you going to use in the forest?) and enjoy. Add ice if desired.
If any bartenders or mixologists out there can recommend a way to keep the vodka and cream separate, please let me know!