Sweet: The History, Craft & Cookery of Maple Syrup
By Terese Allen | Photos By Jim Klousia 0
What does Wisconsin “taste” like? If you had to name one foodstuff that best reflects our geography, climate, history and culture, don’t answer “beer,” “brats,” or “cheese.” These may be the state’s most recognizable culinary icons, but they can’t outdo maple syrup in this contest. Maple syrup is ours in even deeper ways than those previously mentioned transplants from Europe. It’s a deeply beloved indigenous ingredient that permeates our history, seasons our cooking and shapes our cultural psyche.
HISTORY AND LORE
Myth has it that granulated maple sugar—not syrup— is what came out of maple trees originally. According to Menominee lore, maple sugar was a source of concern to the tribal hero named Manabush. He worried that his tribe would grow lazy if obtaining such sweetness took too little effort. So he turned the sugar into a liquid. After that the trees had to be tapped and the flowing sap collected and tediously boiled with hot stones in birchbark containers. Then the people had to strain the thickened sap, heat it again, and work it with wooden paddles until it crystallized. Finally they packed the maple sugar into containers for storage.
No chance of laziness there.
Beyond the considerable labor of processing maple sap into sugar, American Indians also had to contend with the weather (more of Manabush’s doing, perhaps?). You see, the clear mixture of water, sugar and nutrients that constitutes maple sap flows only under very particular meteorological conditions and for just a few short weeks a year. To maximize the yield, ancient tribes would have had to work very hard indeed, for sap flows efficiently only on sunny days with temperatures in the 30s and 40s, and nights in the 20s and teens. (It’s this interplay of warm days and cold nights that causes maple trees to swell and shrink slightly, forcing sap out of the tap holes.)
As soon as the sap was on the move, so were the tribes. They hauled food and shelter supplies, along with sap-making equipment, to their sugaring camps. Once there they worked quickly, for unprocessed sap can go bad within a day or two. What’s more, given Wisconsin’s fickle weather patterns, there was no knowing whether a maple run would be long or short. Maple season may have been the busiest time of the year for Wisconsin’s legendarily diligent tribes.
The effort was worth it, of course. Wisconsin Indians savored maple sugar and syrup in many kinds of dishes. They used maple sugar almost like salt (which they did not have) to season soups, stews, vegetables, grains, fruits, meats and fish. They made a kind of wild rice pudding with dried blueberries and maple syrup, and they fermented syrup into vinegar to flavor venison. Boiled sap became a taffy-like “snow candy” when poured onto fallen snow. Another sweet treat was sugar cones, shaped in diminutive bark containers or duck’s bills.
Native peoples also drank maple; they stirred sap or sugar into water for a cool drink and sometimes blended it with the sap of other trees, including box elder, yellow birch, ash and basswood. (Yes, other trees do produce edible sap, but none as deliciously or readily as the sugar maple.)
Still, maple sugar and syrup were more than gustatory pleasures. To Menominee, Ojibwe and other tribes in the region, maple was a signature cultural flavor, a source of pride and satisfaction, and a nourishing, revered staple.
Until the late 1600s, when local tribes encountered French and French-Canadian fur traders, Indians consumed virtually all of the sap they gathered. But once they began trading maple sugar and other indigenous foods for European goods such as wool cloth and iron kettles, a commercial market opened up. Maple flavored the diets of early settlers, too, who also bartered with the Indians. Imagine the stunned-but pleased look on the face of a hardtack-weary fur trader or a sweets-starved pioneer who has just had his first taste of maple syrup!
Eventually the region’s non-Indian settlers learned how to process the sap themselves. In the 1800s, maple processing became an industry, one that peaked mid-century when Wisconsin ranked among the top states for sugar production. After that, affordable imported sugar became more readily available, and maple sugar production began to wane. At the beginning of the twentieth century, when beet sugar became a part of Wisconsin agriculture, the maple industry went into a kind of free-fall.
Thank goodness it didn’t die out; instead, it stabilized as syrup began outpacing maple sugar. Eventually, nearly all maple sap in the state was made into syrup, reversing the previous trend. In 1932, maple syrup makers formed the first producers’ cooperative in an effort to improve standards and market maple syrup. Around that same time, the state Department of Agriculture launched a grading system for maple syrup.
Higher priced than other table syrups but recognized as a unique delicacy, maple syrup went gourmet in the latter part of the twentieth century. Today, with the ever-growing appreciation for local foods, maple syrup is the focus of a small but significant industry in the state. Typically, Wisconsin ranks number four in the nation for maple syrup production; but our love for maple syrup isn’t about the numbers, it’s about our heritage. We cherish it as part of our cultural past and culinary present.
ART AND CRAFT
Unlike cheese- and beer-making, maple sap processing is an iconic Wisconsin food craft that changed little long into the 1900s. Technology, in fact, didn’t affect the maple world until the 1960s, when plastic pipelines began to replace buckets in the sugar bush.
In the next decade, some processors began using reverse osmosis machines to remove water from sap—a fuel- and energy-saving technique during a time of rising environmental consciousness.
I remember the first time I saw the bright-blue tubing twisting its way through a maple forest. As I crosscounty skied along a snowy trail on a brilliant day, I wondered if sap buckets had gone the way of wooden skis. And when I got a tour of the landowners’ pumping station, which moved the sap into stainless steel vats for evaporation before it was bottled mechanically, it looked to be more spaceship than sugar house. I feared the worst—that the maple syrup itself had changed, too. Happily, that “new-style” maple syrup tasted as hauntingly good as any I had ever enjoyed.
Today, while many maple syrup producers pump their sap through tubes and process their syrup by machine, many also make syrup the traditional way. Wisconsin’s maple operations run the gamut from small, family-run businesses that market locally to large companies that ship their products worldwide.
And when it comes to maple syrup, some things never change. No matter how or where syrup is made, it still takes thirty to forty gallons of liquid sap to produce one gallon of syrup, the annual yield still varies according to weather conditions, and the amount of sap obtained from a single tree is still as little as ten or as much as eighty gallons.
If maple syrup was a musical group, it probably would be considered a one hit-wonder. That’s because in contemporary times we use it mostly as a topping for pancakes. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!)
But Wisconsin’s liquid gold is more than a breakfast syrup; it’s a unique ingredient with a gift for accenting and enhancing both sweet and savory dishes.
With its distinctive sweet-smoky flavor, maple syrup can complement the tartness of a hot bacon dressing or tame the bite of a mustard sauce. It has an affinity for pork, cream (and cream cheese), apples and nuts. It gives a secret edge to drinks—try it in hot chai or add it to the state’s signature cocktail, the brandy old-fashioned.
Consider brushing maple syrup on grapefruit halves or pineapple wedges and grilling them. Drizzle it over angel food cake, or mix it with sour cream and spoon it over raspberries—lightly broil either one of these for a bit of caramelized char. And by all means, drizzle maple syrup on pancakes and waffles…plus muffins, scones, biscuits, croissants…etc., etc., etc.
Maple-enhanced cooking starts with syrup, but it doesn’t end there. The state’s maple growers produce a range of maple products such as maple sugar, a finegrain sugar that may be used in recipes that call for white or brown sugar without changing the texture of a dish. (Although it will change the taste markedly!) I sprinkle it on buttered cinnamon toast, fruit smoothies and ice cream.
Then there’s maple cream: pure maple syrup cooked to a thick substance, then whipped to an ultrasmooth, golden spread. It’s lush but fat-free and you can spread directly from the jar onto toast or bagels. Maple cream doubles as a cookie frosting, cake or candy filling, or doughnut glaze. (And yes, it is as utterly delicious as it sounds.)
Maple fans who aren’t in the mood to cook may opt for ready-to-eat specialties like maple nut popcorn, maple root beer, and maple cotton candy—an addictive, fluffy, golden-white delicacy that is spun from granulated maple and cane sugars. They gobble up maple-enhanced barbecue sauce, lattes, salad dressing and even breakfast sausage.
GIVE ME AN A…
Grades aren’t everything, right? That’s certainly right when it comes to maple syrup. While Grade A is usually considered better than Grade B, grading for maple syrup is based on color, not quality or flavor.
I was privately—and somewhat sheepishly—relieved when I first learned this, since I favor the taste of Grade B myself, and I find that its deep character makes my syrup purchases “stretch” farther than Grade A. Grade B syrup usually comes from the sap that runs later in the season, which boils down to a darker and more rustic flavored syrup than “first-run” sap. Grade A syrup is paler, more amber in color, more delicatetasting, and it has traditionally received the more gourmet reputation. The truth is, the best maple syrup is the one you prefer.
Whether graded A or B, some maple sap can be lightly fermented, changing its makeup and adding another layer of flavor that consumers go for (or not). What producers avoid is over-fermentation—read: spoiled sap—and sap that runs very late in the season and has become bitter. (At this point the tree has begun to conserve sap in order to nourish its developing leaves.)
Today, just as in the past, maple syrup means more than good eating—it means good culture. To see what I mean, try attending one of the maple syrup pancake breakfasts that take place around the state during maple season. Sponsored by maple growers, nature centers, and school and community groups, they are the quintessential cure for late-winter cabin fever, as much about camaraderie as they are about food.
Or visit a sugar bush during maple run season. At a time when gardeners are chomping at the bit and the opening of outdoor farmers markets is still weeks away, a stroll through a forest of dripping taps is welcome proof that spring will indeed arrive. Many operations also host instructional tours of syrup-in-the-making. And believe me, nothing can beat the “ahh”-producing aroma of maple sap as it boils down to liquid gold. Unlesss it’s the wondrous, life-is-sweet taste of one hundred percent pure Wisconsin maple syrup.
It’s the taste of the state.
Continue reading to learn how to taste maple syrup, where to buy local syrup and to see Terese's amazing maple-licious springtime recipes!
How To Taste Maple Syrup
How would you describe the flavor of maple? It varies more than you might think, according to a team of sensory evaluation specialists and maple syrup scientists who developed a glossary of words for describing it. Called the Maple Flavour Wheel, it categorizes general flavors from herbaceous to confectionary, and nuances from to cinnamon to soap. Just as with wine, learning the language of maple syrup takes time and attention, but the glossary can help. So can these tasting techniques:
- First, take three short sniffs of the syrup. What impressions do you get?
- Take a small sip and swirl it around in your mouth. Spit this out and take a moment to concentrate on the full range of sensations.
- Try to connect the flavor with something from your own experience (for example, the aroma from a bag of marshmallows)
- Share your reaction with others—this often helps trigger memory associations.
- Once you have identified what characterizes the taste, name it (for example, vanilla) and assess its intensity (mild, medium or strong).
- Write it all down—this will help you remember it.
Adapted from “Flavour Wheel for Maple Products,” Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, at www.agr.gc.ca/index_e.php.
Where to Find Local Maple Syrup
There are too many maple syrup producers in the state to list all of them here. But here are two certified organic ones that use sap from Southern Wisconsin to make their syrup:
For a comprehensive list of producers, visit the Wisconsin Maple Syrup Producers Association