America's Sweeteners Today : Discovered by Native Americans, Maple Syrup and Its Sugar Are Authentic North American Sweeteners Benefiting from Modern Technology

By Hopley, Claire | The World and I, March 2003 | Go to article overview

America's Sweeteners Today : Discovered by Native Americans, Maple Syrup and Its Sugar Are Authentic North American Sweeteners Benefiting from Modern Technology


Hopley, Claire, The World and I


Here in New England, spring may come on a February day, when the snow scintillates and the sun soars confidently into the azure sky. When it does, my neighbors tap the maple trees in their yards, because the sap runs most abundantly in the brilliant days of early spring.

For me, the plink, plink of crystal drops of sap filling up the buckets is the very music of springtime. No sight promises crocuses, daffodils, and robins puffing their chests more certainly than maple trees with buckets perched on their trunks and sugar shacks billowing with steam. Not that winter has entirely given way. Bright, clear days promise freezing nights-- and that's fine because the alternating warmth of sunny days and chill of frosty nights makes the sap run.

If the snow has started pulling away from the base of the trees, the weather is warm enough to move the sap. Almost certainly, though, snowstorms will come New England's way well into March and April. That's fine too, because if spring arrives too early, the sap makes its way up the trees and fattens the buds. Once they get ready to leaf out, the maple harvest is over.

Shelly Boisvert's family has maple trees in Hadley and Conway, Massachusetts. "We're out there collecting until we see the trees turning red at the top," she explains. "Then we know they are coming into bud. You can still get syrup, but it is bitter, so that's when we stop." Syrup producers live by such rules of thumb, learned and passed on through centuries of tapping maples and boiling sap in the vast forests of Canada and the Northeast and Midwest of the United States, where the sugar maple thrives. While traditional lore and methods are still crucial to success, new technology and marketing strategies are also shaping the ways they process and sell their products.

Their fundamental tasks are collecting the sap and boiling it down into syrup. The core problem is that forty gallons of sap shrink to only one gallon of syrup. Transporting such quantities of liquid is arduous. In the past, farmers solved the transport problem by boiling the sap right there in the woods. They didn't stop at the syrup stage but boiled until the sap granulated into sugar. Since sugar is less bulky to transport, it was the chief maple product until the twentieth century.

Today, the language of maple production still focuses on sugar: a stand of maple trees is a sugar bush; syrup is made in a sugar shack or sugarhouse; gathering and processing sap is called sugaring and is done by sugarmakers. I learned to appreciate the sugarmaker's skills when I came to New England a quarter century ago. Fascinated by the colorless sap dripping into a bucket, I thought that it must taste like the syrup--more dilute, of course, but still sweet. Not at all. Maple sap tastes like springwater and typically is 2 percent sugar. While some seasons and individual trees produce sweeter sap, that sweetness is barely perceptible on the tongue.

How did anyone ever discover that the huge effort of boiling the sap would be repaid with a golden harvest of sweetness? Most answers trace maple syrup's history back to Native Americans. As early as 1557, AndrA ThAvet, the royal cosmographer of France, commented on the sweet sap of the maple, and in 1606 Marc Lescarbot's Histoire de Nouvelle France describes Native Americans of Quebec distilling "a sweet and very agreeable liquid" from it. A 1685 report to the Royal Society in London describes Native Americans gathering sap, explaining that "after having evaporated eight pounds of the liquor, there remains one pound as sweet."

Anthropologist Carol Mason has argued that Native Americans gathering sap

could not have made syrup or sugar without the iron vessels imported by European settlers. Archaeologists have discovered traces of 10,000-year-old sugar camps in Michigan, however, and early explorers recorded Native American sugaring practices in many locales.

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