Sunday, February 14, 2010

Maple sugaring

I'm a big fan of Mass Audubon. Our $58 family membership has been one of the best purchases we've made since moving to the Boston area. So when I found out about the maple sugaring program at the Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary, I immediately signed up my family.

The Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary's annual Rent-a-Bucket program gives folks the chance to actually tap maple trees. A great hands-on activity for the entire family. Tickets to a pancake breakfast later in the spring and a bottle of maple syrup made from sap collected on-site were added bonuses. Through their sugaring season, the wildlife sanctuary and its fellow Mass Audubon site, Moose Hill in Sharon, offer maple sugaring tours where you can watch sap being collected and boiled as well as taste the sweet results. Perfect family fun when winter seems to be dragging its heels.

After the participants all arrived, we headed down to a grove of maples trees a short walk away.

Tapping maple trees turned out to be a relatively simple process. You drill a hole in the trunk to a depth of about an inch-and-a-half, angling the hole downward towards the exit. The hole needs to be on the southern side of the trunk, at least six inches from previous holes. (The holes from previous tapping spots heal over and look something like belly buttons). Once the hole is drilled and cleaned out of shavings, a spile is gently tapped into place. A bucket is hooked under the spile and covered.

The sap doesn't really start flowing until the days turn warm. It was in the high twenties that morning so only one of the several trees my son tapped started flowing. The flow was more like steady droplets. We all tasted the sap as it dripped from the spile. It was clear and watery and tasted very slightly sweet. The sugar content is highest at the beginning of the season (around 4%) and drops off to about 1% by its end.

Once the sap flows, it is collected every couple of days. The Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary has a wood-burning evaporator that boils the sap, concentrating the sugars. The final boil is done in the kitchen where temperatures can be more finely controlled. The result can be light, clear amber or a darker, richer maple syrup.

What an amazing family outing! No one wanted to leave. Many thanks to Richard and the other folks who work and volunteer at Ipswich River. Their warmth and enthusiasm for what they do added greatly to our experience. My children all had a hand in tapping the trees. Even the little ones gently tapped in the spiles. We're all looking forward to coming back, visiting "our" trees, and seeing how they're producing. I think we have a family tradition in the making.

(For information on other Massachusetts farms that offer sugar house tours, you can check the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association.)

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