We are being held hostage... and in suspense here in our region as Winter and Spring continue to engage in a game of tug o' war. Winter seems to depart, yielding to the warm sun... and then comes steam rolling back with fierce winds... snow and sub-zero temperatures. A stale mate of sorts! We must all wait... for the "Maple Magic" to begin!
In order for the first sap run to get fully underway, there must be a series of sub-zero night time temperatures between -4 and -6C... along with above zero daytime temperatures of between 2 and 7C and sunshine. The warm days encourages the sap to rise, and the cool nights pump it back into the roots. The Ontario season usually begins in mid-March, lasting through to mid-April. If the buds open on the trees prematurely, the sap reduces its sweet taste drastically and the season is over. There is a critical balance in weather conditions here that will insure whether the season is good... or a bust.
Each tree, depending upon its size, can have more than one tap... typically with the spile/spigot being driven into the drill hole to a depth of about 7 cm. New holes are drilled each year and older holes heal over, so no damage or hurt is done to the tree. When trees are selected to be tapped they first have their girth measured about two feet above the ground. Trees under 25 cm are considered immature and not suitable for tapping. A tree between 25 and 35 cm can hold one tap. An ancient tree over 60cm can have up to four taps. While the flow of sap can occur slowly... or even not be present on other days.. it is possible when conditions are exactly right... to have a tree can yield as much as one-third of its annual output in a single day.
The early natives notched a gash low on a root or at the base of the tree and the gash fed the clear sap into waiting birch bark bucket-like baskets which were gathered and taken to a fire location. At this location, there was a hollowed out basswood log was filled with the sap. Stones were heated in the fire and were dropped into the trough to bring the sap to a boil. Needless to say... it was a tedious and difficult process. But this "sweet miracle" of Spring was a gift to hunting groups who festively gathered together after the long and harsh winter conditions in Ontario. In order to survive and to supply their game needs... the tribes broke down into smaller family hunting groups to work and simply survive together... sharing the rewards... or failure of the hunt. Many perished of hunger and disease... especially the elderly. This was truly a much awaited time to celebrate the return of Spring... Light... and tribal village life!
In pioneer times, the sap was boiled at first in single large iron kettles hung over constantly kept fires. But later... the single pot method gave way to "the three pot" method... where the sap was moved along from one pot to another and the heat intensity was reduced to alleviate the scorching or carmelization... that is disastrous to the quality of the maple syrup. This older method was improved upon with the advent of the "pan" method... where the syrup fed into a rectangular galvanized iron pan. The pan was heated from beneath by a constantly- fuelled hardwood fire contained in a brick-lined chamber directly beneath the sap. The bricks held the heat, decreasing the amount of wood required in the boiling off operation.
In today's bigger and more efficient shanties, this method has been replaced in these larger operations with gas fired burners below and stainless steel tanks... not unlike those in a dairy parlour. Everything is controlled to the nth degree... and obviously... thevolume and quality of the syrup can be better controlled and maintained to provide the greatest yield of product during the short and often erratic season.
I guess you could say that I might be biased... and perhaps lean towards the romantic... and I unabashedly do! But from my years of visiting various sugar shanties (even having sampled the "three pot" product)... I sincerely believe that there is an ambiance and patina given the syrup that is boiled the old way. Perhaps it is because of the smoke that infuses the interior of the shanty during the boiling off... and bits of ash that drop into the dark rich syrup. Perhaps ... it might just be the sweet aroma... the true "Maple Magic"... that fills that shanty constantly. "Nose candy"... I call it! Or perhaps... the notion lies only in my romantic and runaway imagination! For "Me"... and a host of many other Ontarians... Maple syruping is a gift that makes the tedium of helplessly waiting through long Winter months for Spring simply... evaporate!
I will post one more Maple Memory... Part Three... with photo jpegs that illustrate some of these details more clearly for those readers... "from away"! HAHA!! Today's jpegs are my plein air works from this week. Two painterly pochade pieces completed on a bitter Tuesday afternoon... and a sweet, loosely painted 10x 12 panel done yesterday on an uplifting and lovely warm Wednesday afternoon at The Lalonde Family Shanty that is located in the nearby Elmvale area in Springwater Township!
Sweet Dreams of Spring... and Good Painting to All!
PS Deb and I did indeed have our fill of Shrove Tuesday Pancakes, Maple Syrup and Old fashioned Ham.... Cooked by my Self... right here in our apartment above The Paint Box Gallery!