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Maple Syrup

Maple Syrup information, history and recipes


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Maple Syrup is probably best known as a pouring sauce, however  its exquisite flavour and natural properties should rank it higher than other ingredients of the kind such as treacle or golden syrup and for vegans, higher even than honey, being a totally animal-free product. Properly processed, it is a very pure ingredient. Nothing is added and nothing taken away…. apart from water.

Origin and History of Maple Syrup


The technique of tapping maple trees for their sap was probably discovered by native Canadian Indians although no-one knows for sure if they were the first. It is safe to say that when first Europeans arrived in Eastern Canada the natives were already well practised in the art of collecting maple sap and boiling it down to sugar. They had many stories and legends about it and despite the fact that Maple trees do grow in Europe, the delicious sap was, at that time, not realised as a foodstuff by Europeans.


Some credit the French for the discovery, having come to the conclusion that the Native Indians wouldn’t have had any “incentive” to have discovered the process. However, sickness or death brought on by malnutrition during the months when other foods were scarce seems motivation enough, as once the excess water had been boiled out, the resulting maple sugar could be stored and used as an extra source of energy and flavouring during the rest of the year, making that theory one of sheer bigotry.


In fact, a British Royal Society paper written in 1685 says "The Savages of Canada, in the time that the sap rises in the Maple, make an incision in the Tree, by which it runs out; and after they have evaporated eight pounds of the liquor, there remains one pound as sweet ...."


However, it was during the 17th and 18th centuries that Europeans enhanced the process and maple sugar became the main source of sugar for the French settlers as imported white sugar was extremely expensive and hard to get especially after the passing of the 1764 Sugar Act which imposed high tariffs on imported sugar.


It was only during the 1860s, that maple syrup as we know it, became a widely used commodity. The invention of the tin can  and the technique of producing sheet metal was the main contributing factor in the development of maple sap evaporation pans, the precursors of modern day evaporators which meant that the syrup could now be stored and preserved for much longer periods of time. Maple syrup and maple sugar were now the most common sweetener in the Canadian and American colonies, superseding cane and raw sugar, or molasses.


Cultivation and processing of Maple Syrup


The tree Acer Saccharum, the Sugar Maple also called Rock or Hard Maple, belongs to the family Aceraceae - Maple Family. They are magnificent hardwood trees, reaching a height of 80 feet or more. Any tree with a trunk diameter of 12 inches or more can be "tapped" for making syrup but it does take about thirty years before a tree reaches that size.

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Tapping (the term given to the process of removing the sap) takes place during the spring when the sap which was frozen during winter, begins to thaw. This is called the “sugaring season”. Once the sap starts to flow a hole is bored into the tree trunk at an angle of 5 to 10 degrees, usually about 1/2-inch in diameter and no deeper than 2 1/2 inches, and slanted up. A "tap" of metal or plastic is then inserted out of which the sap will flow. Generally a tree will tolerate two or three taps but regard for preserving the life of the tree would prevent the use of more taps. The sap which emanates from trees isn’t that sweet and has a sugar content of between 2%-2.75%.


There are two ways of collecting the sap. The age old simple way is to hang a bucket from each tap and empty each bucket by hand once a day. The second way is to use plastic tubing which is attached to each tap, each tube connecting to a central storage tank . Sometimes pumps are used to facilitate the flow of sap through this pipeline system. Bearing in mind it takes 32 to 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup, that would be a lot of buckets. Also the time that sap gathering can take place depends on the weather and could be as short as just a few days. This is because as soon as the weather turns balmy, the tree’s nutrients activate to feed the emerging leaf buds causing an unpleasant change in the flavour.


The boiling of the sap takes place in a "sugarhouse". As sap is highly perishable it must be boiled at once to make a good syrup. The sap is transferred to an "evaporator" and boiled causing large amounts of water to be driven off as steam. Most evaporators are about five or six feet wide and 16 feet long with zig-zag partitions down the length. The cold sap enters the unit at one corner and moves slowly through the partitions, gradually increasing in thickness and sugar density. Additional cold sap is fed into the unit in a steady drizzle, and is filtered and drawn off at the other end. The cooking time is crucial as too much cooking will cause the sugars to start to caramelise creating a darker lower grade syrup or at worse burning.


The resulting syrup is graded according to colour with Grade A, an light amber being the best, Grade B, much darker with a more caramel flavour and generally used for cooking (rather than pouring) or in food production to Grade C which is very dark. It is used in commercial cooking and not usually available to consumers.


Maple Syrup Nutritional Information


As mentioned above,  maple syrup is a very pure ingredient and contains a wealth of minerals such as calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, sodium and zinc,  plus good quantities of B complex vitamins, principally thiamine.


Storage and Uses of Maple Syrup


Unopened containers of maple syrup can be kept in a store-cupboard although prolonged storage may cause it to darken and the flavour may deteriorate so refrigeration is a better option. If a thin layer of mould develops on an opened container of syrup, just peel off and sterilise the syrup by giving it a light boil, then rebottling it in a sterilised container. Although this may cause the syrup to darken, the flavour should be unimpaired.


Most people only think of maple syrup as a sauce to pour over pancakes or waffles, however there are lots of ways to use maple syrup in the kitchen in both sweet and savoury dishes and it can often be used as a substitute for honey which is usually the case in vegan recipes.


Click here for lots of sweet and savoury recipes using Maple Syrup



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