For a long time, we've been meaning to go back East to see Kesten's great Grandpa and learn to make maple syrup from him. If you are going to learn how to make maple syrup, Grandpa Nutbrown is probably the best to teach you. In a few months he'll be 86, and being born during maple syrup time (the sap ran later in Quebec in those days), he has 86 years of maple syrup making experience. Being a maple syrup baby, I am pretty sure the sap runs through his veins and fuels his love for making this sweet delicacy. He learned to make syrup from his father who learned from his father, who probably learned from his father who was the first to come over to Canada as a boy.
Grandpa Nutbrown grew up on a farm where they raised chickens for eggs, had a few dairy cows and meat pigs, and of course made maple syrup. Farm work was done with a team of horses and Grandpa told us about how hard it was to make hay without a windrow rake. They didn't need a lot of money then, and almost anything they needed that they couldn't provide for themselves they could trade eggs and butter for.
Entertainment meant having friends over for a game of cards, or dancing the night away to the piano. His father's dandelion wine helped liven things up a bit as well. He remembers his parents' friends staying over until 3am.
Growing up on a farm probably encouraged Grandpa's innovativeness. He can rig up, fix, or invent just about anything from whatever is lying around. He has invented a system for boiling down his sap to syrup that has come from years of experience and makes the process very efficient. He has an amazing knowledge of the woods and can identify the trees with just a glance. This is harder than it sounds when there are no leaves on the trees. Growing up in the West with our abundance of evergreens, I have a hard time telling a maple from a chestnut, let alone a soft maple (takes twice as much sap to make syrup) from a good sugar maple. Grandpa seems to know these things innately. The more time we spent with him this past week, the more we learned. The basics of maple syrup making may be learned in a week, but the subtleties and traditional knowledge that perfect the art really take a life time to learn. I wish we had started years ago.
Maple syrup making can only begin when the weather is just right. The days need to get above zero, while the nights need to be below freezing. This gets the sap running. Grandpa tapped the trees before we got there, but he demonstrated on a tree so we could see. Using a hand-held drill, Grandpa makes a hole on a slight angle, over an inch deep. You want to be through the bark and into the wood. The sap should start flowing pretty instantly. Grandpa likes to tap the trees low to the ground, so that the dark wood that comes when the holes heel over don't affect the lumber, if the tree should ever be cut down.
Grandpa likes to tap trees over a root and on the side where there are more branches, as the sap will run heavier on this side. A tree needs to be about 8 inches wide to be tapped and to have more than one it needs to be about as big around as your arms could hug.
One of the things that surprised me most about tapping the trees, is that the sap is clear and looks like water. Having never seen the process, I think I expected the sap to be darker in colour like the finished syrup. The things you learn!