At one stage in a life of experimentation with ordinary kitchen objects, I made a still. Using nothing more than a pressure cooker, a length of copper tubing, cold running water in the sink, and a heady mash of fermenting fruit, I produced some intensely powerful alcohol that burned with a blue flame, filled the house with a fine cognac nose, and — please kids, don’t try this at home! — made a pretty decent drink. There were no arrests.
Another time, having been charmed by brochures about the terroir that produces it — “See the Dazzling Fall Colours of Eastern Canada through the Windows of Your Bus!” — and the sugar-soaked lore that surrounds it, I drilled a hole in the trunk of a tall backyard maple in Vancouver in an attempt to extract its upwardly mobile sap. It was liquid that I hoped might eventually lead to a bottle or three of home-grown maple syrup. Unfortunately, it led to nothing. Like Watusi warriors who tap their cattle for blood, and ants that defend aphids in exchange for their honeydew, entrepreneurs in the West have had some success with this tree-milking thing. But all the icons of Canadiana drawn from gathering maple sap in the last of winter — the sugar bushes, cabanes à sucre and frozen backsides of harvesters — are things that seem to be peculiar to Eastern Canada and the Northeastern United States. And bless ‘em all for their frigid
sacrifice. (Don’t tell the Albertans, but I’ve heard talk that if the Tar Sands ever dry up, there’s a whole new industry in birch syrup, but that’s another story).
The millions of litres of maple syrup that are produced annually in Canada, which end up on our waffles, French toast and pancakes — and as a sweet ingredient in dozens of other recipes that you can find here and elsewhere — were first harvested eons ago by clever First Nations people who presumably said: “Let’s tap that yonder tree and see what’s inside?” And out came sweet sap. And the story goes that they left it in a birch-bark bucket in the cold overnight air, lifted off the ice the next morning, and voila, the residue was something deliciously new for breakfast!
Today, in sugar and black maple farms in Quebec, Ontario and points east, maple syrup production is a big, colourful business. In the early spring, when night-time temperatures are still below freezing and it’s above freezing during the day, the sap starts running in the maple trees and the harvest begins. For some, it’s nothing more than a bucket hanging on a plug tap. For others, it’s miles of PVC pipe that runs from individual trees to bigger arterial pipes and through pumps that slosh the sap along to the shacks where it will be reverse osmosed — a whole other story — then boiled down, bottled and shipped to supermarkets and duty frees across the land. I’ve often picked up a few bottles to take to friends and rellies in foreign lands. Even though they appear to appreciate the gesture, they never seem to know what to do with it.
The romance that has attached itself to moonshine, in my kitchen or deep behind a Kentucky mountain, has also stuck to maple syrup. Maybe because the images of moonshine, cowboys on lone prairies, and traplines, are all so … natural, and evoke such strong personal memories? But you know what I mean.
Those who have been close to the culture invariably get wistful about their golden syrup years. And those of us who live in the broad-shouldered, no- culture west find that wistfulness hard to understand. They talk, with misty eyes, of the last of the days in the sugar bush — the hectarage of trees that’s farmed — and how they dipped syrup into the fresh snow to make sweet popsicles; about their mom’s sugar pie; the intensity, and at the same time, the joviality of the sugar shack; how really good the syrup was back then, even if it wasn’t; how cousin Laurent’s maple syrup in Saint-Paul-de-Joliette was waaaay better than Georges’ stuff, just 10 k up the road. They regret that today many of the louvered shacks hidden deep in the woods, where the trilliums, columbines and chokeberries explode in their summer brilliance beneath the leafy maples, have been replaced by commercial syrup emporiums that come complete with every conceivable and inconceivable kind of syrup derivative, and restaurants full of very ordinary food.
One of my researchers wrote: “The menu is almost always omelettes, ham cooked in maple syrup, potatoes, baked beans, tasteless bread, pork rind, ketchup, grand-pères — dough cooked in maple syrup — and if you are lucky, a maple syrup pie. Most places have music that is far too loud. If you feel like it, you can dance to get rid of the extra calories. It’s okay for groups that have known of nothing else. The best part is outside. They pour hot maple syrup onto the snow and you pick it up with a popsicle stick.” There seemed to be a yearning for other, sweeter times.
One day, I must heed the siren call of those brochures, catch the colours of fall, and hang around until spring when the sap starts flowing in the maples. Snuggled up in a sugar shack, I may even show them how to make a still from ordinary objects. I would guess that anything is possible in a sugar shack.