Man O'War Ridge is silent under deep blue skies as it looms beyond the craggy crevasse known to locals as Crow's Gulch and, as far as the eye can see, not a breath of wind disturbs the placid waters of Colliers Harbour. It is a proverbial large day in mid-March (2017) - and the perfect conditions for my planned activity.
I watch as 74-year-old John McWilliam, clad in the ubiquitous red-plaid shirt of woodsmen everywhere, pours off the harvest of maple sap from his six tapped trees. Streaming into a larger bucket, the liquid will be boiled down over several hours into maple syrup. John recalls being gifted the trees as very skinny seedlings back around 1984. He planted them himself, and today the largest of those maple trees tower above nearby telephone poles.
We while away an enjoyable afternoon going through the process (along with John’s daughter, Tina). It is the very first time any of us have made maple syrup. Nursing warm cups of coffee in the lee of the trees while the fragrant sap boils away on an outdoor burner, John remarks, “It is really something; I never would have believed that when I planted those little trees all those years ago they would grow big enough to make maple syrup from them. It is not all that hard to do, just check the buckets daily so they don’t overflow, really, and then boil it all down when you have enough. It has been fun.”
At the end of the season I check back and learn that John and Tina continued collecting sap until April 9 - and ended up making about 5.25 litres of delicious syrup, which they gave to grateful family and friends. That’s a whole lot of maple syrup - but it’s only a drop in the bucket when you consider how much of it is mass-produced in Canada: 40 million litres annually, enough to fill 17 Olympic-size swimming pools. According to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, that boils down to approximately 75 per cent of the world’s maple syrup supply. It’s produced on more than 10,000 maple farms, more than 70 per cent of which are in Quebec.
Regardless how much of it you make, however, the rudimentary process remains the same and is referred to as “sugaring.” It involves boiling sap from trees to evaporate most of the water content, thus creating concentrated sugar syrup. A simple candy thermometer will tell you when the syrup is ready, and consumer kits provide very straightforward directions for beginners.
Maple Syrup School
To find out more about the local syrup scene I attended the third annual Maple Festival at the North Bank Lodge in Pippy Park last April, where I met organizing committee member Steve McBride. The St. John’s resident is passionate about food security, and is perhaps best known around town as the owner of several goats, beloved pets kept for fresh milk and companionship. Thanks to the Maple Festival, Steve is also becoming known for making maple syrup.
“We have been making our own syrup in St. John’s for the past eight years, but about four years ago we began working in cooperation with Pippy Park to teach maple syrup workshops, and that has now culminated in a celebration of maple syrup culture, which is the festival…
“People can come and we teach them about maple syrup and how to make it, the tapping process, what the equipment looks like, how to tap a tree, and it is really a back-to-basics approach,” says Steve. “We hang a bucket on a tree just like they used to do in the 1800s, and that is the method we use up here in Pippy Park in our community maple grove. We tap about 70 trees here, which is enough to make the syrup that we share at the festival.”
Steve says the province’s weather makes it a good place to practise the hobby, even though Newfoundland and Labrador typically doesn’t have the really large sugar maples found in other provinces.
“On the mainland the tapping season lasts about two weeks, but here the conditions [below freezing at night and above freezing in the day] linger and we can have a tapping season as long as eight weeks. So the trees are smaller and the flow is slower, but the longer season makes up for it.”
He says any type of maple tree can be tapped - not just the sugar maple (though sugar maples are generally better at sap production). A typical yield, he adds, is about 40 to one, meaning 40 litres of sap will result in one litre of maple syrup. “This explains why real maple syrup is so expensive to buy in a store. It is a little bit labour intensive and does take a fair amount of time to make,” he says. Given all of this, I wonder why so many are drawn to making their own. For Steve, a variety of factors make the effort more than worthwhile.
“I like the fact that it connects you to the trees. I like the fact that it tastes better. Of course, here in Newfoundland March is a kind of tough month for people. We have windstorms, we have snowstorms,” says Steve. “Making syrup kind of fills that gap while we are waiting for winter to end and allows us to get outside and start doing things.”
And since store-bought syrup costs three times more than tapping your own, he points out it’s also economical. The Friends of Pippy Park sells six taps (called “spiles”) for about $20, which can produce enough syrup to last all year. Many local businesses and mail order companies sell starter kits complete with several taps, buckets, hangers, covers, the proper drill bit and instructions for $100-$200.
While the resulting maple syrup may be reward enough, festival patrons share with me multitudes of other uses for the sweet stuff: maple butter, maple wine, maple taffy, plus recipes for maple-based waffles, pancakes, popcorn, salmon and chicken - just to name a few.
In addition to the demonstrations, last year’s festival featured free hot chocolate, samples, a tasting competition (open to members of the public to enter their syrup for good-natured judging) and a performance by The Teddy Bear Man, Terry Rielly.
The maple syrup workshops and festival are free to attend, though donations are graciously accepted. Future plans for the park include a new sugar shack, where folks can prepare their maple syrup in a communal setting.
Whether boiling it down in your own backyard, or enjoying the sweet atmosphere of fun and friends at a festival, makers of maple syrup have really tapped into something good. - Story & photos by Dennis Flynn