From Tree to Pancake: The Sweet and Simple World of Maple Tapping

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Tapping maple trees brings one back to a more log cabin-y time—a time where everyone got their food directly from the land and lived in harmony with nature. Though it has evolved with some technological innovation, maple tapping is still a process that reminds us of our connection to the earth. It returns attention to all of the elements it takes to produce any product we consume: the soil, the plant, the climate, and the interaction between human and nature. It’s a process that requires patience, an understanding of the land, and of course a love for the intricately sweet, caramelized, woody tasting syrup.

The experience begins with finding a sugar bush–the adorable word for a collection of sugar maple trees–waiting, paying close attention to the weather to determine when to tap, waiting, tapping, waiting, collecting and boiling, more waiting, and finally, tasting. See why patience is one of the requirements?

In Dr. Murphy’s winter semester of Ecology of Food, students get to take part in every step of this process. Our sugarbush is located right behind the campus townhouses, next to a beautiful wooded area with a creek. Tapping typically begins in late February or early March, depending on location and season. It’s a short but rewarding season, lasting only a precious few weeks, which are increasingly threatened by climate change.

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When conditions are right, meaning days with above freezing temperatures and below freezing nights, the class makes the trek to the sugar bush to tap. We are armed with a power drill, hammer, spile, collecting bag–also endearingly called a sap sack–and the knowledgeable and assuring guidance of Dr. Murphy. Then the fun begins. A 1 ½” hole is drilled about four feet up the trunk, with care to avoid the area that was tapped the previous year. Next, the spile gets hammered in and everyone crowds around to observe the first drip of sap slowly making its way out of the tree. Once a regular drip has begun, we hang the sap sack and move on to the next tree. Over the next two weeks, students collect the sap in large buckets which are brought to a bakeshop to be boiled down into the product we all know and love and now appreciate, maple syrup. If being out in the sugar bush isn’t rewarding enough, we also get to take home a jar containing the fruits of our labor to put on our pancakes, in frostings, glazes, or just to sip straight up! It is truly tree to pancake…or waffle, or french toast, or tongue!

By Jamie Wilkinson