Monday, April 04, 2016

Sugaring off

Well, sugaring off month has just ended. That’s the grand and glorious month of March, when the maples are tapped, the sap drips into the buckets, the buckets get collected, and the sap is boiled down until 35 gallons of it become one gallon of pure maple syrup. At least that’s what I think this painting by Grandma Moses is telling us. (I’m not going to get into just what an inspiration Grandma Moses is for me. Let’s just say that when she began her career as an artist she was nearly 80, which gives me a bit of runway if I’m going to pull a Grandma Moses as a writer.)


Anyway, although I’ve lived my entire life just a bit south of sugaring off country, I’ve never actually seen it in action. The closest I’ve come is seeing sap buckets on trees.

If I’m ever going to see sugaring off, I’d better get moving, as climate shifts will no doubt play havoc with sugar season, probably cutting it down to three days in January. Or moving it further north, to the Hudson Bay Colony.

But sugaring off season has just wound down, which prompted the Boston Globe to run an article exposing the use of the word “maple” in all sorts of products that don’t have anything to do with “maple-maple”, but which are enhanced with “maple flavoring.”

There are dozens in any grocery store, labels that claim maple flavor, carrying the promise of woodsy, intense sweetness, often with an illustrated flourish of a maple leaf.

Too many of those goodies, maple producers say, have no maple at all inside. Oatmeal, cookies, agave syrup — familiar brands and products of all kinds, they say — are made with artificial flavors, not the real thing.

“You’re talking about an inferior product both in terms of quality and price,” said Roger Brown, a co-owner of Slopeside Syrup in Richmond, Vt. “Marketing it as something it’s not — that’s why we have rules against that.” (Source: Boston Globe)

Despite having grown up in New England, I didn’t grow up with real maple syrup. That is, unless Vermont Maid, the house brand Chez Rogers, was, at one point, the real deal.

Here’s what VM is these days: Our original Vermont Maid Syrup, available in both 24 and 12 oz sizes, tastes more like pure maple syrup and is a staple in many New England homes.) Mostly I think that Vermont Maid was always some variation on a theme of maple-ish high fructose corn syrup. I’ll take their word for it tasting “more like pure maple syrup”.

I say that Vermont Maid was probably always fake because, on the occasions when I had real maple syrup as a child, I disliked it.

I don’t know what those occasions were. Did someone give my parents a tin of authentic maple syrup as a gift? Did we pick some up on the day-trip we took one summer to Bennington, Vermont?

In my lack of appreciation for real maple syrup, I was not alone:

“When I offer samples of syrup at farmers market, one of the most common complaints I hear is, ‘I don’t like how it tastes.’ But it turns out they have never tried real, pure maple syrup. People have an incorrect perception of maple flavor as this weird chemical taste,” Brown said.

Anyway, now the FDA is getting in on the act, looking into those who throw the m-word out there when there is, in fact, nothing maple about their products.

My palate having gotten a tad more sophisticated since the days when I was capable of pouring a half pint of Vermont Maid over three pancakes, the syrup in my fridge is 100% pure Vermont maple syrup. I just looked at my jug and it’s “best if used by April 18, 2016”, so I better pick up some Eggos when I’m out grocery shopping.

These days, I really like really likeable real maple syrup, and can’t imagine buying the fake stuff. And there’s really no need to. It’s not as if there’s any lack of supply. US maple syrup output has nearly tripled since 2000, and US “maple syrup makers tapped 500,000 more trees in 2015 than in 2013.” And they tapped them with a “process [that] involves tubes threaded through the woods to draw sap to a central location.” No more yoked oxen. Sorry, Grandma Moses.

So, there’s no reason (other than economic, of course – but how much maple syrup does someone consume in the course of a year that a few bucks makes a difference?) not to buy authentic maple syrup, and to push back on the better-living-through-chemical products that include “maple flavor.”

I don’t think you have to worry about maple sugar candy.

First off, who does worry about maple sugar candy to begin with. Other than that one bite can send you into a diabetic coma. But as an insanely sugar-y candy, you can’t beat it. And I don’t think there’s a lot of fake maple sugar candy around.

On my annual pilgrimage to Brookfield Orchard, I always buy a small package of them, in their wonderful little leaf shapes. Or a bigger “bar” in the shape of a pilgrim girl. Biting her head off is as much fun as taking that first chomp on a Peep.

I had a double ration of maple sugar candy this year. As a thanks for dog-sitting while she and my niece were in Portland for a couple of days, my sister Trish brought me back a package from LL Bean. Melt in your mouth delish.

And, syrup and candy aside, there’s the fact that maples make their wonderful red contribution to fall foliage.

The Maple Tree, Forever!

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