Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Day in the Woods with the Sap Part 2....

Here we are! Last week was tapping the trees, and now comes the gathering Sap and making Maple Syrup. Very exciting process, I have to say. And quite the workout, as I said in the last post, it hasn't changed much in 100 years. You still have to go out on the hillsides and gather it up in buckets. First thing to do in the morning is get the Arches fired up. Arches are where the syrup cooks.

You also need to fire up the stove in your Sugar Shack, because it may be raining and chilly and where else are you going to cook lunch. (or Dinner as they say in the Country) Slam'er would also like me to point out that just because in the three blogs she's been so far, she's wearing exactly the same outfit, this doesn't mean she HAS no other clothes. (I hadn't noticed, this IS kind of funny. Woods fashion doesn't change much either)

The Arches get VERY toasty. And you have to watch your Sap at all times, because if it scorches, you're done for.

The logs go only in the front of the Arch. The heat is then drawn all the way down and up and out the pipe you can see at the back. The back pan is where the Sap goes at first, quite a bit of it. When it cooks down enough, it gets transferred to the front pan, where it will cook down even more, all day long, until it is Syrup. I'll tell you how you know when this happens in a bit here.

The Sap goes into a holding tank, in this case, an old milk holding tank. Most years, it, and several others would be full. Sadly, this is a very bad year for Maple. It's far too warm. For syrup making you want nights that are in the 20's, and days in the 40's or so. The Sap rises during the day, and more or less freaks out at night, goes back down, sort of thinking "OOPS! What am I doing, still winter, I'll try again tomorrow" Which of course means you get a lot more Sap.

When it is this warm at night, the Sap just nips right on up the tree and stays there. The worst year the Slam'er Family has had since they started in 1991, was 60 gallons, the best, 300. They estimate they might get 20 gallons this year. Not so good.

Here's the Gator parked by the holding tank. See the grey box on the back? The buckets are all far out into the woods, so we drive the Gator thru the paths, which are like little roads (with names even) stopping every so often to walk down the hills with buckets, going from tree to tree, emptying the hanging buckets into the carrying one, and then dumping them into the mini holding tank on the back of the Gator.

This is a lot of work, but a fine leg workout. The hills are very steep and the rule is, doesn't matter if you fall, just SAVE YOUR SAP.

There is a second holding tank, with a long hose that runs from the top of a hill, down to the main holding tank. This is so you don't have to drive all the way back there every time your mini tank gets full. You simply dump the Gator Tank, into the second tank and down it goes.

This is what it looks like from the bottom of the hill, that's the Shack and the main tank.

This is the view from the top. Pretty nifty, eh?

It isn't ALL drudging away with heavy buckets, up and down steep hills, slipping in the mud, trying to save sap as you go tumbling down, there's plenty of time for breaks. And beer. Of course. If you have enough beer, you can drive a Gator thru just about anything, I do believe.

The corn is an interesting feature, out at the Shack. It seems too many people were running into the stove pipe, burning themselves horribly, some scarred for life, so they've hung a lovely bunch of corn in front of it, as sort of an early warning system that death is near.

They took another approach inside the Shack, where the same thing was happening, but it's just as effective.
And if the mood hits you, you can enjoy some swinging. On a Maple tree, with bucket, of course.

One of the BEST snacks ever, is eggs hardboiled right in the sap, kid you not. You get the eggs from the chickens that morning (once again being pecked half to death) bring them down to the Shack with you, and pop them on in. They taste sweet, which you might think is an odd taste for an egg, but trust me, if you even get a chance to try this, go for it.

Back to the woods. This tree had five buckets on it, tho it's kind of two trees that grew together, so it doesn't really count.. Tho it does have a handy place for sitting, if you are adventurous. (The girl IS, trust me)

Sometimes you get a bucket that looks like this, which is very sad. It means tree water has gotten into the Sap, which would make it taste bad, and you have to thru it on out.

When the syrup starts to get near done, it look like this, boiling away, and you have to check it often.

With this: A Hydrometer. It hangs handily there very close to the Arch, you use it often, a few minutes can make all the difference.

You fill the tube with boiling syrup, the thermometer is inside, and when it is done, it pops up at exactly the right place, which is marked and then you MOVE and get the syrup off.

You do this by sliding the very full pan of boiling syrup off the Arches, and rest it on a 2 x 4 you have nailed across the shack for that purpose. You also have to get a sheet of tin over the fire, so you don't scorch yourself. Doing this with out spilling boiling syrup all over yourself, or burning up is a wee bit tricksy, but remember, this is the Farm of 1000 Ways to Die. All in a days work.

It's good to have a Milk Can Handy and ready at this point. There are three separate filters, held in place with some high tech clothes pins. See how little things have changed here?

Slam'er is holding the milk can steady, while Papa Slam'er pours boiling molten syrup into the can. JUST ANOTHER WAS TO GET MAIMED OR DIE HORRIBLY out here, Folks. Didn't seem to bother them, and I admit, didn't bother me at the time. Didn't until I saw the pictures and thought about it.

In it all goes.....Pure syrup. Pure very hot syrup.

All that's left is to bottle it on up. And of course, pour out a small glass and pass it around the group.

I've never tasted anything so sweet. Ever. Took about ten hours of work yesterday to get this, and much more on earlier days, tapping, collecting but I have to say:

So worth it. I'll do it again.

Love and Maple,
Quiche MeDeadly

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Tapping the Trees, Syrup Making Part 1....

Yesterday was all about going back to the Farm of 1000 Ways to Die, with Slam'er, for the first part of of a Maple Syrup Adventure! I've wanted to learn how this all works since I was five and read Little House In The Big Woods. It hasn't, it seems, changed that much since those days, which makes me happy.

The taps are called "Spiles" I kept forgetting the name and all I could remember this morning was "Snipe" which I knew was wrong. Put it in my list of questions and Slams set me right. She said Snipes are different and we'll go hunting them later this summer.

This tool never had a name that I knew. I do know if you take the hammer and hit IT while it is on the spile, the spile will be into the tree quite nicely with little fuss.

This would be the Sugar Shack, with Gators (remember them from Burr Gully? We stayed out of that misbegotten place this time, tho we did go look at it, and wonder how we'd ever...well, never mind, that was then)

I have no idea why we brought a chainsaw along to make syrup. My best guess is that these country people are simply not comfortable being too far away from CERTAIN DEATH.

Here on the drive out to the woods, let's just talk a moment about the whole Chicken Incident. I kind of like chickens and hoped we could go visit them and, you know, gather some eggs, like last time. Slam'er was obliging, and we did. The only thing, the chickens were ON their nests this time. "Go on", says, Slams, "just reach right on under and grab the eggs" Hello? Really? This has GOT to be a joke on the City Girl, thinks me. Sadly, no.

When she stopped laughing at me, she showed me how, just sort of reached in, and her chicken got up with a "Oh dear me, sorry, let me move over so you can get those" attitude. MY chicken stayed right where she was, glared at me like a crazed serial killer and started making noises like a Sci-fi monster straight out of a Dr Who episode (in fact I may go back and record this noise, they could use it) NOT clucking chicken noises, and pecked me half to death with her razor sharp beak. Never saw so much blood, but the surgeons believe the hand can be reattached and will in time be useful again.

Damm chickens. Ima going back there...

Anyway, back to the woods. First, you need to drill a hole in the tree, which is really cool because on a lot of them sap came GUSHING out. I don't think this hurts the tree, they don't seem to mind, you can see the scars from previous years all over the maples. Kyle Cassidy thought that the holes were made by shooting the trees with guns, which I have to admit, would have been fun and added an element of danger to the whole thing, but no. Just a regular little drill thing.

Here's what it looks like once it is in...

And with a bucket hung over it, for sap to drip into....

And all that's left is for someone to pop a lid onto the bucket. That would be my job.

Some trees can have more than one bucket. According to Slam'er, here's how you can tell:

"Trees must be at least 10" at DBH (Diameter at Breast Height...this is an actual term, I didn't make it up) to be tapped. When they are 16" DBH they can have 2 taps, 24" gets 3 taps and 30" gets 4 taps. We've never had a tree with 5 taps....yet. :)"

You have to be able to tell which trees are Maple's, just any old tree will not do. And of the Maples you need to be able to tell if the tree is going to be a good runner. Slam'er and Papa Slam'er have it down to an art form, they can tell by looking, and they can also tell you which particular tree is the best, remembering them from previous years.

I like that. And I like it that this really is the way it's been done for 100's of years. You go out in the woods with some buckets and spiles and tap 'em into the trees. There's a more modern method too, and we'll talk about that as well. It's the Total Leg Workout method of syrup making.

This is what it looks like, looking up into the Maple, to see if it's a good one. (Mostly, I just liked my Tree Picture and wanted to include it)

This is the more modern method, which they use on the Really Really Steep hills because too many people were dying, I mean slipping and sliding, down the Really Really Steep hills some of the trees were on. This was un-popular because you ended up not only losing your bucket of sap, but you'd also be wearing it by the time you got to the bottom.

The way it works is there are lines that start at the top of the Really Really Steep hill, and they go from tree to tree, with a tap at each tree, all flowing down to a large collecting bin at the bottom, so the sap doesn't have to be carried down in buckets by hand. Of course, someone has to climb on up the Really Really Steep hills, check to see if Evil Squirrels (all squirrels are evil, I learned. And deadly) have chewed thru, replacing the bits that were, and tap the trees, as they don't STAY tapped all year.

Hence the Total Leg Workout.

Plenty of workout opportunities in the woods. Here's me doing the upper body portion of the training. Had some self interest here too, since it would apparently make it safer to drive the gator over the gully if the bridge had been shoveled first.

One of the stories they told me yesterday was how in the spring, as the snow melted, the water from the upper pastures, and the hills, would come down and fill the gully, making a proper river of it. One of the most wonderful things I ever did see was looking up and SEEING the exactly moment this happened, as we were driving back. Within moments, the gully went from snow filled and empty to a raging river. Here, it's coming...

And here, it's a river. Magic.

It's all Magic. Woods Magic. Old Woods Magic. I loved being a part of it. And there's still gathering, and actually making the syrup. If you look very closely, in this picture Slam'er took for me, you can just see the drip of sap before it falls into the bucket. It drips, and drips, until the bucket is full. There are 730 taps out there in the woods, all dripping into their buckets, slowly filling.

It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.

But they gave me a cup to drink. It was like drinking Woods.

Or Magic.

Love and Maple,
Quiche MeDeadly