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To syrup, with love: Tap into the taste of real maple -- not the fake stuff

Sunday, February 20, 2000

By Jennifer Kissel

Maple syrup is one of those foods, like butter and real cream, that stands back and chuckles at impostors. That's because no combination of additives, artificial colors and preservatives could pull a true maple syrup lover from its sticky, amber embrace.

Joe Stavish, 18, an assistant naturalist at Latodami Nature Center in North Park, shows Jason Gulbin, 11, how to drill a hole in a maple trunk to get syrup. Jason is a member of a West Deer Webelos Scout Pack that recently had a sweet time learning about maple syrup. (Tony Tye, Post-Gazette) 

In fact, maple syrup -- the real thing -- captured a few young hearts and taste buds recently at North Park's Latodami Nature Center. Eleven boys and six parents from Webelos Scout Pack 965, West Deer, tramped through the snowy woods to learn the simple process of tapping maple trees. They tasted sap directly from the tree and agreed that it tastes like water. Afterward, they sampled finished syrup, with unanimous results.

"Oooh! This is good," said Steven Bizon, 10, of West Deer. " Oh, this is really, really good. Oh, yeah, this is a lot sweeter -- this is so good!"

Although less demonstrative, Jason Gulbin, 11, of Gibsonia, enjoyed his sample, too. "The fake stuff tastes like mud compared to the real thing," he said, referring to the thick imitation syrup commonly called pancake syrup. Gulbin asked if there is any of the "real thing" in pancake syrup.

"Not a bit of the real thing," said park naturalist Meg Scanlon, reading the label on a bottle of pancake syrup. Its ingredients included corn syrup, artificial flavors, salt and coloring, but no maple syrup.

People who have never tasted maple syrup don't like it at first, said Scanlon, 42, of Pine, because they are conditioned by the taste of imitation syrup. "Consumer research says that people respond better to color and texture than to taste and quality," she said.

Through February, school children and scouts will learn the history and process of maple syrup and will tap the trees in preparation for a public demonstration March 4. The Webelos used the demonstration as time toward their outdoorsmen and forestry badges. These badges, and 21 others, are needed to advance to the Boy Scout level.

Scanlon uses the demonstrations to inspire interest in the outdoors and maple syrup and to drum up volunteers for subsequent demonstrations.

At the all-day public demonstration, attended by approximately 200 people last year, adults and kids alike will learn the history and legends of maple syrup and see sap being boiled into syrup, which they sample.

Last year, volunteer John Fagan demonstrated the cooking, which is done outdoors on a stone hearth over a wood-fired stove. The sap is boiled for eight to 10 hours in large, flat-bottom pans and is transferred to smaller pans as the sap condenses into syrup. Although he melted his jacket last year, Fagan, 58, of Shaler, is eager to return this year.

"People have a fascination with seeing a favorite food being made," he said.

Part of that fascination stems from the fact that the process has been almost unchanged for centuries. "It can't get much more simplified than this," said Scanlon.

Legend has it that one warm March morning, an Indian chief left for a day of hunting and grabbed his ax, which was wedged in a large maple tree. As his wife went to the river for water, she noticed a bucket sitting under the tree, directly under the spot where the ax had been. She saw the bucket was full of water, and thought her husband had kindly filled it for her. She poured the liquid over a freshly skinned rabbit and set it on to boil for dinner.

That evening, the chief exclaimed over the sweet, wonderful taste the rabbit had. The "water" was actually maple sap.

Whether or not the legend is true, American Indians began making maple syrup. Because their wooden buckets would have burned over fire, Scanlon said, they dropped fiery hot stones into the sap until the excess moisture burned off and syrup remained. Later, the pioneers used hand drills to collect sap, which was cooked in metal pots. Today, says Scanlon, the sap is collected through a series of plastic tubes that lead to one or two main sap lines. Or, taps drain into plastic bags.

Joe Stavish, an 18-year-old North Allegheny senior and part-time Latodami employee, instructed the Webelos on the art of tapping maple trees. He provided guidance as Gulbin drilled a 2-inch hole into the sunny side of a tree and then cleaned the hole out with a stick. The boys lightly hammered a plastic spout into the hole.

If you are inclined to tap a maple tree at home, Scanlon said "a plastic drinking straw and a plastic milk jug work just fine."

At this time of year, sap is about 97 percent water and has little if any taste when drained from the tree. Tapping the tree at the correct time of the year is essential, she said, because the sap must be "running."

During the cold months, Scanlon said, the tree is dormant and is not providing nutrients to its leaves. But once daytime temperatures rise, the tree begins to send sap to its upper branches through its zylem, or sapwood layer.

Because Pennsylvania's February temperatures are often above freezing during the day and below freezing at night, the sap runs up and down, so it will run out of a hole in the tree. Sometimes the sap barely drips from the hole, but "there are days when the sap flows so well it will spurt out when tapped," said Scanlon.

That free-flowing sap is what syrup farmers long for, as the ratio of sap to syrup, in gallons, is 60:1 from a silver maple, and 30:1 from a sugar maple. By law all maple syrup sold commercially must be 66.5 percent sugar, or 11 pounds to a gallon, but flavor can vary greatly, Scanlon said. "The light Grade A is the fancy, more delicate syrup, which can cost $60 a gallon."

The lower grades, which are stronger and darker, cost $25 to $30 a gallon. "Many people are so programmed by fake syrup that they prefer the dark," said Scanlon.

Whether it's dark or light, most maple syrup lovers will say, "Pass the syrup and a stick of real butter, please."

They know that the labor that goes into making syrup is a labor of love. "I didn't expect this to be so interesting," said Ed Gulbin, Jason's dad. "I will definitely enjoy my pancakes much more now."

For more information on the tapping demonstrations for kids or the public maple syrup demonstration March 4, call Meg Scanlon at 724-935-2170. Latodami Nature Center is at 575 Brown Road, Wexford, past the skating rink in North Park. The four one-hour programs are at 10 and 11 a.m. and 1 and 2 p.m.

Jennifer Kissel is a free-lance writer who lives in Reserve.

Related Recipes:

Maple Mocha Topping
Maple Surprise
Maple Crunch Drumsticks
Maple Cream Candy

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