Cooking Tips: Collecting Vermont Maple Syrup

Syrup can be poured on pancakes, but can also used tasty sweet treat instead of white sugar - learn about how this natural harvest happens every year.

Every year thousands of children climb onto school buses and head out through the snow into the hills and valleys to experience the thrill of maple syrup collecting. You might have been one of these anxious youngsters, watching the syrup being drizzled over fresh snow and offered a taste of the wonderful concoction, still a bit warm in the hand and melting in your mouth. But where did the idea of maple syrup come from, and how did it become so popular?

The original harvesters of this sweet delicacy were the Native Americans. They came up with the concept of tapping the sweet sap out of the maple trees and boiling it down to a thick syrup and/or then to sugar, a unique addition to their diet. When the colonists arrived, they embraced this sweet treat as their own, using it for flavor and for trade as well. Cane sugar was expensive at this time, as well as being harvested by slaves - which made maple sugar a much more palatable commodity for the settlers. This translated into hundreds of recipes that are still in use as the newcomers adapted to this unique taste sensation.

Strangely enough, maple sugar can only be harvested in North America. Thomas Jefferson, the great American statesman, attempted to export the maple tree and this bountiful harvest to find that the tree simply would not grow well outside of the North American climate - the tree itself would flourish, but the sap itself was tasteless and much less sweet than those found in North America. All along the Eastern Coast and up into British North America (Canada) the harvesting of maple sap and eventual creation of maple syrup and sugar has and still is a main way of life for many communities and a major source of income.

The maple sap itself isn't sweet all the time - for only a short time when warm sunny days and freezing nights alternate for a week does the sap change and offer the sweet taste. During this short period the harvesters rush out; setting up their sugarhouses and tapping into the bark of the trees. Setting up buckets to catch the running sap, they then return the full portions to the sugarhouse where they are added to a large cauldron and boiled down again and again until the thick mixture is created. Sixty gallons of sap can be boiled down to produce only a gallon and a half of syrup! You can see why mass amounts must be collected each season and why pure maple syrup is treasured. The average tree can produce between fifty and seventy gallons, so each drop is captured and carefully treated to get the most out of it.

Despite what you might think, maple syrup is not as fattening as it seems. Each tablespoon contains approximately forty calories, much less than white cane sugar. Conversion tables can be found for the avid cook who wants to integrate this natural sweet treat into everyday cooking; the average conversion consists of three-fourths of a cup of syrup for each cup of sugar. You'll have to reduce the liquids in the recipe by a third, since the syrup provides a lot of the liquid needed already, but check with your cookbook before tossing away the white sugar. Many health food stores carry not only pure maple syrup, but also many cookbooks and conversion charts for the baker in the family.

When purchasing maple syrup be sure to read the label closely - pure syrup will most certainly cost more than the artificial ones on the market, and close scrutiny is needed to make sure that you're taking home the real thing, not some simulated taste product that looks good because it's in a log cabin shaped container.

Each year class after class of children in Canada and the United States are taken out into the bush to see and experience the thrill of this natural harvest. The trees are not hurt at all during the tapping process and live for years and years; each time producing a hearty gift for the eager sweet teeth among us. A trip to the sugarhouse usually involves seeing how the raw sap is boiled off into syrup and a treat - drizzling the hot syrup over the cold snow produces maple syrup taffy; a sweet and warm treat that melts in your mouth as you learn about the bountiful harvest of our natural resources!

Maple syrup is a uniquely North American treat that is eagerly exported worldwide as more and more people discover this tasty and sweet alternative to cane sugar. Maybe you might want to consider switching over to this golden honey of the trees!

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