by Andrea Caluori of Ashfield, MA
Sugaring season has ended and the spring sun feels more potent and present than it has over the last few weeks. While everyone is already enthusiastic in our Northern Berkshire towns for the upcoming summer season filled with the social buzz of things to do, people to visit, blooming flowers and the energetic chaos that comes with the warmer air, I’m already nostalgic for the quiet of snow.
This year marks my first sugaring season partaking in this quintessential New England tradition, filled with a rich history and stories that define the late winter season in North America. In my research of the topic, I came across so many anecdotes of 19th century boiling and sugaring parties when men and women would come together in a sugar orchard, boil the sap, dine and dance among the maples. Before sugar cane was imported, maple sugar was the sweetener of choice. The sap from the trees was boiled down to a thicker consistency than the syrup we know today, and then poured into molds to create crystalized sugar cakes. The more I read about the art, science and history of sugaring, the more I want to know. For example, the evolution of spouts, the variation of collection vessels, and the constant engineering and rethinking of sap collection for efficiency and production are in constant development. It’s fascinating to learn how the technology of sugaring is always adapting and reforming the methods and practices from over 200 years ago.
However, given all the technological advancements and re-workings, the process is pretty much the same regardless of the industry’s technology. You cut into a sugar maple (Acer saccharum), put some sort of collection vessel beneath it, and when the warm days and cool nights in late February and early March arrive, the sap flows. You collect, you extract water and this incredible natural ingredient, preserved by its own sugar content, is ready for you to eat.
The one thing I cherish about maple syrup is that it’s uniquely North American. In food and wine, we often talk about terroir, however what exemplifies New England’s terroir more than something like maple syrup? It can only be produced here and each sugaring season’s harvest is a reflection of that particular year’s climate, how the sap ran, and the trees’ genetics. The syrup is a snapshot of a season, a year, the soil and the sugar maples. What defines a good year? What defines a bad year? What does that mean for the sap? How was it processed? Where is it from? Maple syrup is the liquid form of a sugarbush’s geography and the trees’ composition. While I’m not promoting the start of a conversation regarding the expression of terroir in maple syrup, what I am highlighting is that local food that comes from local places holds within it the place and stories of where it’s from – and one can’t deny that when they taste it.
My first day of sugaring was a late February day. I purchased a used set of 4 buckets, taps, and roof covers from a local sugarer in the next town over. The transaction went like this: I drove up to his driveway, left $28 in an envelope and collected the buckets left out for me in his mud room. My neighbors lent me a manual auger as a drill and gave me a quick tutorial on how deep to drill the hole and how to hammer the tap in in order to hang the bucket. It took ten minutes for my education and I was ready to go.
The trees I chose to tap live at an elevation of about 2,000 feet. The place they inhabit is now conserved land and was once a large farm estate owned by a decorated war veteran in the 1940’s and 50’s. He, himself, had a small sugaring operation in the woods, however the trees I chose were originally planted in the 1950’s as a part of a decorative allèe that flanked both sides of his large house. The mansion no longer exists, but the trees’ perfect uniform pattern and the old apple orchard nearby, recall the people and farmers who once lived there. It seemed about time to give these sugar maples a new purpose other than standing there to look pretty. They now had a job, a new identity. They were no longer going to be an allèe, they were to become my little sugar orchard.
So on that cold February day, at about 4PM, I walked across the snowy field with my buckets and drill, to begin my sugaring adventure. As I made my way towards the trees, the only sound I could hear were my boots crunching through the snow. On the ground, snowshoe hare tracks darted through the trees and into the woods. I walked over to the line of sugar maples and wondered when was the last time someone visited this stand. The air surrounded me with an intense quiet. I began to inspect for earlier taps.
No scar tissue to be found, I proceeded to choose a waist-high spot to begin drilling. Although I only put in 4 taps, the process became a sort of meditation. Each time, I selected a spot, turned the drill, hammered the spout, hanged the bucket and placed the roof cover on. The sounds of each action created an odd symphony. My nose dripped from the cold, damp air as I worked to place the 4 buckets on 3 trees. It was a solitary affair, and one I relished immensely. When I was done, I stepped back to look at my buckets and trees. There it was, the beginning, and I’ll never forget these first giants that made me a sugar maker.
With sugaring, I wonder if it takes a bit of a melancholic and nostalgic personality. You experience the woods during this “in-between” state, the intersection of winter and spring. There is this odd longing that takes hold of you: you don’t want winter to end, and yet it’s mixed with this eagerness for the arrival of spring air and summer bounty. It’s such a strange and fleeting moment that created for me this intense and bittersweet nostalgia each time I walked out to my small sugar orchard. It was on March 20th, at 5:57 PM, that I remember looking out at my trees, a golden hue filled the air as the sun began to set. It was the first evening I truly felt the arrival of spring, and yet I was still surrounded by the lingering, damp snow. The warmth of the early spring sun and this drawn out farewell to winter stirred something within me. I realized how this sugaring thing seems to be full of some strange woodland magic. No one else was ever around during these moments in my sugar orchard. It quickly became a daily practice to walk across the field, check my buckets, and hang out with the trees. As the season progressed, I began to notice the birds’ songs permeating the air, new fresh tracks in the snow and the slow disappearance of winter.
While I always understood that syrup was made from this watery substance, it truly was another thing to actually behold. I mean, it’s simply magical! One day, you walk out to the trees, lift the roof cover, and the bucket is full of what looks like water. That gentle giant reaching towards the sky produces this incredible substance. I immediately dipped a cup into the bucket and tasted the extremely subtle sweetness of the sugar maple’s sap. I even bottled some and drank it for a week at home. As the sap ran, I began a collection of 5 gallon buckets left covered in the snow near my little sugar orchard. Each contained this precious substance that I would soon boil down to syrup. I loved those daily walks to the trees, and writing this now, post-sugaring season, I already miss them. It was my ritual. I would walk out across the field, through snow, and later mud, check the buckets and quietly move from tree to tree. Strangely, each tree began to take on a different personality. Walking between them, I felt this odd sensation that I was in the company of distinct individuals gathered together.
This sensation I felt while visiting the trees was something I didn’t expect. With my goats, their unique personalities are more tangible and obvious because their expression of emotional intelligence is more comprehensible and similar to my own. However, the sugar maples possessed character I discovered to witness too. Although from a scientific perspective, I understand that each tree is unique in terms of its material composition, genetics and obvious form, there was also something energetically I experienced on those walks that made me feel these beings’ presence in a much more palpable way. To describe this is almost impossible, but the feeling existed and it’s one I’ll never forget.