Cedar and Pearl


By John Piotti | Mar 29, 2016

Susan grew up in Vermont — a state associated with maple syrup the way Maine is with lobsters. So I’d be ready to follow her lead if she ever suggested we boil sap. But no such suggestion had ever been made until this past January, when Susan purchased five taps and buckets for my birthday.

As it turns out, this was a novel experience for both of us. Despite her Vermont roots, Susan had never made syrup either.

We bought our house in Unity in 1987, almost 30 years ago. At the time, there were two large maple trees in the front yard and one in back. We lost one in the front yard in a storm about 15 years ago. The big tree fell miraculously between our house and garage, a distance of only 10 feet, damaging nothing but the small picket fence connecting the two buildings. But the remaining tree out front works well for two taps, and the enormous specimen out back easily handles three.

While living in Unity, we have used our land to feed us in many ways. We have raised chickens in our dooryard and vegetables in our garden, harvested rhubarb and Jerusalem artichokes planted years before by people we never knew, foraged for wild berries and fiddleheads in the woods out back, picked gnarly apples off ancient trees at the edge of our field and tiny pears off tiny trees we planted by the house. And to this day, we still use the cooking oil that Henry Perkins pressed the year he made our field the most dazzling in Waldo County by planting 10 acres of sunflowers.

But we waited a long time before attempting to make syrup from our maple trees. How foolish. I should have known better.

In the years before he passed, I would often visit my dear friend Rod McElroy when he was boiling sap. Rod, who lived smack in the middle of Unity Village, would retreat this time of year 30 feet from his side door to his makeshift sugar shack — a “structure” with walls of stacked cordwood, over which he'd stretch an old tarp when conditions required it. I don’t recall the setup of his evaporator, but I remember the pleasure Rod took sitting there watching his sap boil, hour upon hour. Rod was perhaps a bit unorthodox in his techniques (after all, he did filter sap through a sock), but as a man who had lived a long and engaging life, he clearly knew the power of that mesmerizing boil and fill-the-soul scent.

At that point in my life, I did not possess Rod’s wisdom. I simply didn't get it. Now I do.

Susan and I have now spent the better part of several March days sitting just outside our barn beside a bubbling sap pan, engulfed in sweet fog. Granted, we spent most of our time reading, not gabbing, as Rod would have. But that is a difference of personality, not perspective. I do think that Susan and I — through the ritual of collecting and pouring, boiling and boiling, and boiling and boiling and boiling — have clearly arrived at a new appreciation of our world and this season, one that Rod himself would embrace.

We had only five taps, but that was plenty to fill a huge steel pot on four separate occasions, producing one batch of each of four different grades of syrup.

The earliest sap produced a light golden syrup with a delicate flavor — and, to be honest, we wondered if we had done something wrong. But the next batch produced an amber syrup with rich flavor, similar to what we were accustomed to buying. The next two batches were progressively darker and more flavorful. Susan did a little research, learning that this is what happens as the season continues.

I was pleased that our first batch was light because of when we made it, not because we did anything wrong — as that one was my favorite. And I certainly didn’t want to be choosing, as a favorite, a form of maple syrup that isn’t worthy of the name. I couldn’t do that to my Vermont wife.

Susan finishes each batch over our kitchen stove, so that she can use the candy thermometer and get it just right. Our batches are so small that we can get away with taking this last step inside, as long as we have the overhead exhaust fan on high. Still, the house is filled with the most glorious scent.

The kids were home for spring break by the time we boiled the last batch, so they had a chance to take it all in. John walked into the kitchen at the perfect moment to have his olfactory senses overwhelmed. That definitely made an impression. And Anna, who is a bit of a foodie, certainly loves the final product.

But I’m afraid that neither of them fully appreciates the process — or participated in it. Anna only stepped outside to see what we were doing, while John never even did that. They are simply too young to spend hours smiling beside a boiling pot.

Such is the folly of youth.

John Piotti of Unity runs Maine Farmland Trust. His column “Cedar and Pearl” appears every other week.

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