Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Sweet Taste of History

One of the benefits of living in a ‘slow-growing’ agricultural area (some say economically depressed) is that there is history everywhere you look. Very few of the homes on our road have been bought up and torn down or transformed. The sad point is that many of them are abandoned or cared for only by relatives in the area. The people come, they cut the grass, leave a light on and lock the gate behind them. The ghosts of the past are left to play freely in the space they have always known. The woman who lived directly beside us was in her nineties when she moved away to an old age home. She lived in that log house for her entire life, and could recall the day when she was 2 that they moved the cabin from back against the mountain to a spot closer to the road.

Our home was originally built 150 years ago. Since then a new addition was put on close to 100 years ago. And another major addition was added on 5 years ago. The place had remained in the same family for 5 generations and we were the first to change the name on the title in over 100 years. Because we wanted to preserve some of the history, we retained the previous owners name on the mailbox and put our new and shiny letters around the outside of them. The builders that had come to erect our timber frame addition asked if we had plans to demolish the old log cabin that was the original house. I was slightly insulted by this question but understood his point. Our house was on such a great angle that we could not use any chairs or tables on wheels without losing them to the other side of the room. The doorways are less than 6 feet high. I explained that part of the attraction of this place to us was that there was a lot of history in it.

When we moved in we swallowed any stories that the previous owner was willing to share with us. We learned that his uncle had died while logging up on the mountain. We learned that his wife had died in this house. There was a time that the road stopped at our house. Earlier still there was a mail road that passed our house and went up and over the mountain. I have since found a rusting old mail truck back in the woods on an old overgrown path. We have also had people dropping in to tell stories of how they were involved in the life of our home. One fellow in his eighties remembered our barn being resurrected and described a spider that he used to look forward to visiting in the mow when he was a boy. On the ceiling of our kitchen there is a name, Dave Young, carved with 1917 as the date. The wood was taken from a dock that was torn down on the river down from our place.

As I made the hole from the old log cabin for a doorway into our new addition upstairs, there turned out to be no less than 5 layers of wood and two layers of insulation. There was one layer of wood panel, two layers of old barn board (this was once an outside exposed gable), one layer of tongue and groove pine, one layer of chip- board, some shingles and that black board you put under them and the drywall painted apple green that I had put up a few years back. Sawing through these layers was like peeling back the layers of time. Each of those many nails had been driven by others in a different time so hopeful with their own new additions. There was no way to salvage the wood, so I decided to use it to boil down our maple sap this year.

I can’t believe that maple syrup season is already upon us! Sap season is the mark of the beginning of production for us unless you count planting seeds for the greenhouse that happens in late February. For me syrup is the first real harvest of food that goes from our land to our fridge. Those seeds will only come to fruition in some number of months from now so I prefer to count those chickens later.

I also knew of a pile of old cedar fence posts that were rotting in the woods at the back of our land that I thought would be great for boiling sap. We took the trailer back today over the frozen morning snow and filled it up with help from the kids. The wood was also covered with fencing staples and old fencing wire. Being cedar, it burns hot!

We try not to buy wood to boil the sap because it’s a good time to burn things that can’t be burned in our outdoor wood furnace. We scatter the ashes from that onto our fields and could not do this if it were full of nails. Our rig includes a pair of old stainless steel commercial sinks nested inside an old oil container on its side with the top cut out, and a door and chimney put into the sides. My husband was the handiworker and it cost us less than $50 for the set of sinks (the oil tank came from the dump). We used an old woodstove chimney. The syrup ends up slightly smoky tasting with this method and the sides of the sinks get a little burned so it is not one bit of fun to clean up but all in all it is a pretty effective method.

It takes anywhere from 5 to 20 hours to do a sink load of 170 L of sap which results in around 5L (over a gallon) of syrup. Seems to depend on the type of wood we use and the amount of draft in the air. Overcast days are the worst to boil, rainy days of course can be ineffective, and sunny, windy days are my favourite. We aim to do around 2-3 rounds in a season that results in 10-15L of syrup for ourselves (what we seem to use up no problem). Any extra makes excellent gifts but we have learned the hard way not to give it all away, however tempting it is to share it.

Once the sap is down to a sticky watery syrup consistency we haul it out (usually less than 8L) and do the rest inside the house on the stove. This step can take anywhere from 1 to 6 hours depending on how far we let it get down in the sinks. Some nights we have been known to not stoke the fire anymore once we go to bed, place plywood partially over the sinks and let whatever is left of the fire work overnight. One time we literally woke up to a vat of syrup already made for us! One more hour and it would have been lost and burned to the sides. This is the lazy mans method to not get up in the middle of the night to stoke it. We know it is ready by placing a small amount in a metal container in the freezer. If it is the right consistency within a few minutes when it is cool, it is ready. That’s how technical we get around here.

They say it is around 40L to make 1L of syrup but we find we get thick syrup with 35:1 or sometimes 30:1. This must be related to the kind of trees we have. The sugar maples too are rich with history. They line the winding road that our house is on and can be over 1 metre (1 yard) in diameter. The trees apparently had been planted by so-and-so’s greatgrandmother and I would guess they are well over 100 years old. As someone who has planted many kinds of trees around our property in hopes that one day there will be a story about them too, I love imagining that woman with her handful of seedlings (transplanted from elsewhere?). She is my hero and I visit with her every other day for a few weeks every year in March and April.

As the temperature is now diving below zero each night and rising into single digits (Celsius) during the day, we are in perfect sap running conditions. The season could last a couple of weeks or has gone as long as 6 weeks for us. It started March 1 last year but some years we don’t even start until early April. I have learned not to try to predict anything and just go with the flow (pun intended). We have around 30 taps set up and collect every other day or so, keeping it in a big fridge until we have enough to boil. The sap starts off light and gets darker and richer as the season goes on. When the buds start to break on the trees the season is over.

With all of the work it takes to make maple syrup you can see why the finished product is treated like liquid gold. I once underestimated a pot on the stove and ended up spending hours cleaning syrup out of my oven, under the elements and inside the pots and the pot drawer. It was one of my most devastating losses of the year!

Expenses each year include the replacement of a few buckets and spouts that have broken or cracked and a few cone paper filters for straining the syrup. As in all things farming, it takes a lot of time. But like many jobs it is hard to know when the clock is punched in or out. Especially when you’re having fun and doing what you like. We seal the syrup in 1L mason type jars. It’s not a bad deal for over $200 in syrup.

Year after year we have collected the sap with our children. First with a two month old baby strapped underneath our coats, then a one year old in a backpack, then a 2 year old with a newborn strapped under our coats, then a 3 and a 1 year old toddling along with us, and so on. This year was the first year my daughter is old enough to help pour out the buckets and hand me the hammers, the lids, the buckets, the spouts during the tapping season. All the while some number of dogs are attached to the stroller or wagon that has come with us. It is quite a party on the street!

My favourite part this year is letting the history of those fences that once kept animals on this very farm many moons ago reduce the sap along with the wood from my new (almost finished) passageway above the kitchen.

And that is how you turn history into something sweet.

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