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Maple syrup festival sweet despite sap gap

March 13, 2000|By BRUCE HAMILTON

THURMONT - Making maple syrup is a sappy job, but the trees were not cooperating at Cunningham Falls State Park Sunday.

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The park's annual festival features demonstrations of how to make the sweet, thick liquid. But before the 30th Maple Syrup Heritage Festival began Saturday, rangers found a shortage of sap, the recipe's only ingredient.

"It didn't flow very much," said Ranger Dan Harbaugh. "It was a bad year."

Harbaugh said he "tapped" some trees March 1, driving metal tubes called spiles into their bark. Several 55-gallon drums fill with the juice in a good year, according to the ranger. This year he harvested two.

Sap flows best when a freezing night is followed by a rapidly warming day, according to a park pamphlet. Some trees can yield as much as four gallons per day for each taphole, but the amount depends on weather conditions.

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The plastic sap bag hanging on a maple at the William Houck Area was empty. Children lifting the lid of a metal pail attached to another tree with tubing and a spile found it also dry. But the crowds came and the cooks' concoction boiled anyway.

"How many of you have a sweet tooth?" asked Ranger Chuck Bowler, standing beside a metal cauldron filled with churning brown fluid. A few people gathered around the crackling fire held up their hands.

"Is there a cure for that? No, just treatment, right?" the ranger joked. Wearing a plaid shirt, a floppy hat and overalls, Bowler discussed the history of maple syrup with a jolly sense of humor.

Native Americans discovered maple syrup, most likely by accident, he said. A weapon or animal may have nicked a tree and they found what they called "sweet water." It dried sweet and sticky on their fingers.

They learned to collect it with notched chips and birch bark containers, Bowler said. European colonists brought their own sweet teeth and invented new equipment, such as hooked metal spiles, to gather sap and make syrup.

He explained that sugar boils at 219 degrees Fahrenheit, seven degrees higher than water.

"How do you know when it's done?" he asked the crowd. "Taste it," came the answer. "Do you think I could taste this right now without going to the hospital?" he joked, gesturing to the bubbling mixture.

He lifted a dented ladle, saying it was specially calibrated at the National Institute for Standards and Technology. The liquid is ready when it drops from the ladle in sheets, forming a crystalline curtain, he said.

The ranger showed how a hydrometer can also be used to test the thickness of the solution.

Sryup is made through an evaporation process that concentrates the sugar solution. Most of the water, tannin, salts and other impurities in the sap boils away. Unlike commercial operators, Bowler used a "batch" method to produce one lot.

He explained that it must be removed from heat quickly once it finishes. It is typically filtered through cheesecloth and stored at a temperature of at least 180 degrees to keep it from spoiling.

The event, which is a fund-raiser for the Friends of Cunningam Falls State Park, continues this Saturday and Sunday. Call 301-271-7574 for information. The annual festival includes craft demonstrations, storytelling and horse-drawn carriage rides.

Pancakes and sausages were served at the concession stand Sunday, along with helpings of syrup. Pralines, spiles, syrup and maple fudge samples were also sold. Educational videos were not shown because of technical difficulties.

Holding up several bottles filled with different hues of amber, Bowler pointed to the darkest. "Ours looks like burnt motor oil," he said. "The health department would never let me sell this to you."

It is strictly a reward for volunteers, the ranger explained. "We're allowed to poison them," he said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a rating system for syrup, according to Bowler. The lightest color liquid, known as "Vermont Fancy," is typically the most expensive, he said. But the darkest stuff has the most flavor.

"If you like maple flavor," he said. "Buy the cheap stuff."

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