Saturday, March 21, 2009

Sugaring Off Part I and a Canadian Cocktail

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.

(click on any image to enlarge)

Young saplings are interspersed with strong tall maples on either side of the path and almost every maple has a tin bucket hanging from it. Through the trees I can see a hub of activity. A pile of old wooden pallets towers precariously next to a massive cast iron stove; they are the fuel for the fire that reduces the sap. A couple of quads are parked nearby and the very sight of them causes Noah's footsteps to quicken. He is a boy for sure.

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.

(Yours truly tapping a maple. You can see the smoke rising through the woods behind us)

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!

Click Here for Sugaring Off Part II!: Making Taffy, Apple Cinnamon Flapjacks, and a recipe for Auntie Lynn's Rustic Maple Pie.


Rina said...

Yummmm that sounds great!

Do you by any chance have a resource for where one can buy true, sugared off maple syrup? I live in BC.

kickpleat said...

I don't think I have ever been more jealous. Wow.

Elyse said...

What a wonderful post. I love all of your pictures! And that cocktail looks totally delicious. I really want to go maple sugaring now!

Anonymous said...

How cool is this? Wow! What a neat experience and a fantastic post.

Catherine said...

oh this sounds perfect. I love hearing about your sugaring off adventures. I am all kinds of envious.

Shari@Whisk: a food blog said...

Ok, how much for admission?! I'm on my way...LOL Thanks for that cocktail recipe. I have all the ingredients (although the maple syrup hasn't been boiled over a fire!). Sounds idyllic. Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

If you want to keep the vodka and cream separate you have to figure out which one is heavier, pour that one in to the glass first. The pour the other one in to the glass slowly over back side of a teaspoon. You could have used the one in your pocket.

I wonder where around here (VT) I can find syrup boiled over a fire in the woods. Your story is wonderful.

Ingrid_3Bs said...

Sounds like a wonderful time! Can't wait for the rest.

Your photos are lovely!

Anonymous said...

Usually made as a shooter, this drink is called a " true Canadian," if made with whiskey it is called a "kicking cow"

I can't wait for part 2! :)

Anonymous said...

Living with a Quebecois, pure maple syrup is a staple in this house. His birthday is this week and I am going to try the cocktail for him... I am SURE it will be a hit. Looking forward to part deux! Thanks for sharing!

CookiePie said...

What an amazing experience -- thanks for sharing it!!

Anonymous said...

Oooh. I'm a maple-aholic. Not to be confused with a maple alcoholic, but with this drink, maybe.....!!



Lucy said...

It looks beautiful there - what a fantastic time and experience you must all have! Looks delicious :)

Aimée said...

HI Mama Bear- I'll have to look into it. My uncle doesn't sell his, unfortunately.

Hi Kickpleat- Hey you've got Pacific salmon, wanna trade?

Hi Elyse- Thank you! It was an amazing experience.

Hi Kirsten- Great! I knew I had to share the experience and am glad you enjoyed it.

Hi Cathy- This is only half of the adventures!

Hi Shari- Cheers, enjoy your drink.

HI Robin- Thanks for the tip!Good luck with your search, it is well worth the effort.

Hi Ingrid- I went a little snap happy, but everything was just so pretty!

Hi Michelle- OK, that sounds familiar, thanks.I wouldn't shoot this maple syrup, though. Too good!

Hi Susan- I'll have a pie recipe up soon to go with that drink. Happy birthday to your partner.

Hi CookiePie- You're welcome.

Hi Heather- Good one! ;)

Hi Lucy- This forest is most spectacular in the autumn when the maple trees turn all shades of red and orange.

the milliner said...

OMG. That sounds (and looks) like heaven. So sad your aunt & uncle don't sell their maple syrup :(.

A sharp contrast to the whole Bernard organic syrup debacle (which I almost got sucked into at the grocery store, before I figured out real organic maple syrup at $5 was too good to be true (which it was)...and checked the label to find out it was rice syrup w/ some maple, prompting me to put it swiftly back on the shelf).

Have you heard of any public maple sugar bushes in Quebec that use this old method of making their syrup? I'd love to bring our little guy to one (not to mention sample the wares myself :) ).

Great post!

Anonymous said...

I look forward to your maple pie recipe! I just made my first tarte au sucre this week for the Quebec gang and it was good but I find it a little sweet. A friend made a maple pie one time and I found it a more delicate, creamier flavour which I found nicer. Every recipe I have made from your blog has been amazing so I am sure this will be too! Thanks!

abigail @ Paper and Cake said...

i am IMPRESSED! and maybe even a little jealous, with a side of maple syrup :)

Maris said...

I love this! There is nothing I like better than the smell of maple syrup!

Emily said...

What a lovely post! I enjoyed this one. You're a wonderful writer, and your photography is brilliant. Looking forward to the second part..

Anonymous said...

It sounds heavenly. And exotic. And adventurous. And so awesome that your child gets to see where food comes from (not a grocery store shelf.)

Elle said...

Never in my life have I wanted to go do that more than right now. It sounds magical and wonderful!

Culinary Wannabe said...

What an amazing day! This beats apple picking!

Two Minute Takes said...

Even though I was there for the entire experience, the very talented and descriptive article you wrote recalls the day in poetic detail. Kudos to your both your photographic and literary skills Aimee! Thank you for capturing the day so eloquently for all of us. Continued success with the blog, we look forward to part two of "Sugaring Off."

Anonymous said...

I remember when I was younger (much younger), our school class was joined by a girl from Canada. She told us the most wonderful stories of tapping trees for maple syrup. It sounded so magical and mysterious to all of us English girls, and I had the most vivid pictures in my imagination from her descriptions. Your post really took me back to that time - only now, the pictures are real.

Anonymous said...

Ha, I really love the stick stirrers. That cocktail sounds fabulous! I love maple - I just made some great maple cupcakes.

LyB said...

"roughing it with side benefits"... That's for sure! What a fantastic place to be. Can't wait for the rest of this lovely tale. :)

Aimée said...

Hi Suzanne- Not really, but I'll keep my ear open for a public place.

Hi Susan- I thought it was remarkable, you can decide for yourself soon!

Hi Abigail- There has to be some benefits to our cold winters!

Hi Maris- You said it!

Hi Emily- Right back at you, girl.

Hi Kirwin- Yep, and Noah was right in on all the action; just hope he remembers.

Hi Elle- it was both!

Hi culinarywanabe- They both have their magical appeal.

Hi Paula- Why thank you! That means a lot. Thanks for reading.

Hi Kate- What a cool friend! :)

HI Anna- One must improvise in the woods, right?

Hi LyB- Thanks. That's how I felt!

Cookie baker Lynn said...

How wonderful! Thanks for sharing your day. Robert Frost with side benefits. :-)

La Cuisine d'Helene said...

I like your pictures today. I love going to sugar shack. I miss it since I live in BC.

Cheryl Arkison said...

Dammit, I'm moving to Quebec! Okay, Nova Scotia first, I can do all that there and I don't have to learn French.
PS "harvested the deer"? So polite of you!

Lo said...

Oh, yum. I have fond memories of this time of the year from when I was a kid.

Those photos are GORGEOUS. And that cocktail... I'm drooling!

islandgirl4ever2 said...

OHHHH!!! I am sooooo jealous! Can you tell me what is coffee cream, please?! I am in France and I have no idea what it is... Merci, Leesa

Unknown said...

Thank you Aimee for describing the very first Bourque maple syrup experience with such eloquence. It was wonderful to have you all visit Marc and I to see what sugaring is all about. Lynn

Deborah said...

What beautiful writing - makes me definitely want to make a trip there and experience this!

Anonymous said...

A Cute Maple Syrup Poem


Let’s go Maple Sugaring
And get some Maple Sap.
I’ll put on my winter coat
And my favorite baseball cap.

We can make maple candy,
Maple cookies and maple apple pies.
The sweet sticky syrup
Brings a sparkle to children’s eyes.

Along with carving the Halloween pumpkin
And getting the Christmas tree,
We’ve started a new family tradition,
More fun for you and me!

By Macey Hamra
10 years old

Becki D said...

I found your site through Vanilla Bean Baker's...this is such a beautiful post!! You are a lovely writer, and now I want nothing more than to go play in the maple woods. :-)


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