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The sugary truth about maple syrup

April 03, 2008|By TIM ROWLAND

KEENE VALLEY, N.Y. - Sugar is always getting bad press: Obesity, rotting teeth, hyperactivity, agitated girlfriends pouring five-pound bags into the gas tanks of their boyfriends' cars.

But not here.

In the hardwood forests of northeastern New York, sugar is treated with a reverent awe normally reserved for gothic sanctuaries or Hannah Montana.

This is the only place I know of where sugar - in the form of maple syrup - is actually mentioned in the same breath as "nutritional value." That's because the product contains some necessary vitamins or minerals or something.

I don't know how true that is. It may be one of those situations where drinking a bathtub full will allow you to meet 50 percent of your daily recommended intake of manganese.

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Whatever, you can't argue with the flavor, and since my photographer brother Bruce wanted to spend the weekend tracking down sugar shacks for a shot of boiling sap, I was more than happy to tag along.

It's been a late spring up north - there's still a foot or more of snow on the ground and the lakes are frozen solid. That's good in the eyes of the maple syrup industry, because it lengthens the time that sap can be collected. And they need a lot, because it takes 40 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup.

Billows of steam blossom over the shacks as they boil down the sap in modern, stainless-steel evaporators. For artistic purposes, most shacks still have a few buckets hanging from trees, but this old-fashioned process has been traded in for miles of plastic tubing running from tree to tree - thousands of them, in some of the bigger operations - like IV's.

The resulting syrup is treated like wine, and the shacks offer visitors little cups of syrup and maple creams for tasting. The soil the tree is growing in apparently affects the flavor. One producer swore he could tell the difference between his trees growing in sedimentary soil ("more of a vanilla taste") and those at a higher elevation where the rock is more metamorphic.

There is also a more obvious difference in syrup as the season progresses. Early sap runs produce a honey-colored syrup known as light amber. The syrup darkens and becomes more "mapley" as the season progresses and there are very serious differences of opinions as to which stage is most sublime.

As with wines, some years are considered better for flavor than others, and as you can guess, genetics is coming into play - selective breeding may produce tree sap with 6 percent sugar, three times that of the standard tree in the bush.

I can barely tell a red wine from a white, so I didn't reckon I'd have much chance in distinguishing among syrups, and I am proud to say that I was right.

I downed shots of every conceivable variety of syrup, smacked it on my palate and came to the conclusion that it's all pretty sweet and very good. But I'm not sure I was the beneficiary of any of the aforementioned nutritional benefits.

I am not a person who is easily overloaded on sugar, but after about the third sugar-shack sampling, I began to feel a bit woozy. I might have stopped there, but Bruce still hadn't found just the right shot, so we soldiered on.

Two days later, I'm still recovering from a syrup hangover. I'm not as young as I used to be. I can't drink it straight. From now on, no syrup without a pancake chaser.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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