Saturday, April 2, 2011

"you can't do this just anywhere, can you?"

Colonial housewives learned to use maple syrup, adapting recipes from their home countries; Menominee Native Americans boiled wild grasses and syrup to make a stew; the Ojibwe Native Americans participated in sap collecting “camps,” where, after the sap was boiled into syrup, it was packaged into “mokoks,” (vessels or packages neatly made of birch-bark) and buried for later use. While we don’t have sap camp, or boil our syrup into grass stew, gathering sap is a yearly tradition at Farm.

At the waning of winter—the height of cabin fever—sapping begins; the time of year when Farmers are called to hike though knee deep (sometimes thigh high) snow with wood drill, bits, taps and collecting buckets in hands to set up shop. But sapping doesn’t mean just checking buckets, gathering sap and boiling, it also means watching the weather--a sure sign for a good sapping season is the warm days and still cool temperatures at night.

The first payoff of sap season is the delivery of the sap, metal pails emptied into the huge collecting vats, delivered to the Sap House by tractors, and this year for the first time, by the Farm’s own team of oxen! The sap is then transferred into the series of maze-like boiling evaporator tanks, which heat, boil, refine the sap, thickening it into what we know as maple syrup (the processing of sap is complete when the sap has reached 66% sugar content). We are rewarded for our patience by cups of sap tea (boiling hot sap and thick Farm cream) and the sweet smell coming from the Sap House; the candied-air rolling out of the stove piped roof, misting the stone walkway between the Sap House and the wood sheds in saccharine delight. 

Knowing this whole process has caused me to take it for granted somewhat, taking my time about participating in it this year, telling myself, "I'll get sap tea tomorrow."  "I'll stop by the Sap House tomorrow." And then yesterday I realized that the sap season is petering off and I was going to have to wait another whole year for sap tea! So, I tagged along as Farmer MacDonald and EvanAlmighty took the oxen out for a run to pick up a load of sap. I watched as the oxen trotted towards the guys, standing relatively patiently while they were put into a yoke; were led out of their pasture and down the street, dragging behind them a sled of sorts, pulling on top of it the sap vat; watched as the oxen turned off the road and into a pasture, stopping alongside collecting buckets for the dumping. Snapped pictures. 

As we neared the field FarmerMacDonald invited me to hop up onto the blue sap collecting barrel, dragging behind the oxen on the sled, and as I did he shouted, "you can't do this just anywhere, can you?" with this ridiculously huge grin on his face that I know I returned. I felt 8 years old again, like everything was an adventure; my body felt new and refreshingly foreign to me; my heart swelled in contentedness as my lungs took in the loamy spring air; I laughed as I was dragged down a road behind two oxen with the view of two very large rumps. 

The field was deliciously muddy--the kind of mud you hope to stomp around in when you're a kid--and as we wandered in and out of the field our boots and pants were covered in it. We gathered the buckets, dumped, replaced the sap lines into said buckets, and in no time were heading back up the road towards the Sap House; our efforts to be rewarded once we dumped the sap into the evaporating tanks and could enjoy the ridiculously rich sap tea--scalding sap (taken from the evaporating tanks) mixed with rich Farm cream. A cardiologists nightmare, but so good.

I snapped a ton of great pictures, but my computer is down, so will download asap.

For more info on maple syrup, check out: http://library.uvm.edu/maple/faq/

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