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Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2010

Maple Syrup Day

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Long before Europeans stepped foot here, American Indians discovered how to collect the sap of a maple tree and turn it into sweet, nutritious syrup. Since then, the golden brown liquid that we love to pour on breakfast foods and add to our baked goods has integrated itself into our culture, becoming an American culinary mainstay. Wisconsin has a long, rich maple syrup history, one that will surely be celebrated on Dec. 17, National Maple Syrup Day.

All maples have sweet sap, but syrup and sugar are produced from only a few species. Wisconsin’s state tree, the sugar maple, is an all-out sugar-making factory. Energy from the sun, chlorophyll in the leaves, carbon dioxide in the air and water from the ground mix together to make a high-energy watery sap that flows through the tree, feeding it. The trees need this food to survive, especially during the spring and summer, when they do most of their growing. When the trees slow their development in autumn, they no longer need the sap, and it freezes in a layer of the trunk and branches.

For some of us here in Wisconsin, spring isn’t announced by a robin, but rather by the galvanized pail hanging from a maple tree. Maple syrup is the first crop of the year, ready when the give-and-take between cold, frosty nights and warm days encourages the sap in the tree to rise and flow. This specific weather usually occurs between late February and mid-April; the longer a syrup producer waits past the sap’s prime, the more bitter the end product.

Since the days when American Indians harvested the sweet “tree water” from a maple tree by cutting a notch into the trunk with a hatchet and fitting it with a small, hand-carved wooden trough that would conduct the clear liquid into a bowl placed on the ground to catch it, maple syrup production methods and tools have become more streamlined. Maple syrup producers tapping a small number of trees may still do some things the old-fashioned way, such as collecting the sap through a hand-drilled hole in the trunk and plugging it with an aluminum spile from which a bucket or plastic bag hangs. But many producers, certainly those tapping maples in a large-scale manner, employ gravity flow systems that use plastic tubing to funnel sap from the tree right into a holding tank where the impurities are taken out. Then the sap is carefully boiled down in large vats to obtain pure syrup.

Real maple syrup is graded by color using a measure of the amount of light that passes through it. The lighter the syrup, the more light that passes through, the higher the grade. From that base line, the grading standards vary depending on the maple syrup’s country and state of origin. Labels that read “maple-flavored” usually contain a very small percentage of actual maple syrup, while “pancake syrup” and “table syrup” don’t contain any at all. In fact, the primary ingredient is actually high-fructose corn syrup.

Whether you celebrate this year’s National Maple Syrup Day by substituting maple syrup for sugar when cooking and baking, or just drizzling it on your breakfast, make sure to purchase maple syrup that was tapped locally from Wisconsin maple trees.