Monday, April 8, 2013

Meatless Monday: Maple Syrup, Sweetly Sublime

In the most recent issue of the Food Chain, Slow Food USA®’s newsletter, guest blogger John Forti shared a recipe for Parsnip Johnny Cakes sweetened with maple syrup.

Forti, who is Curator of Historic Landscapes at Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, an ethnobotanist and a garden historian, also made the claim that maple syrup “provides perhaps the first documentation for our eat local and food justice movements. Over 150 years ago Ralph Waldo Emerson and many of the abolitionists put forth the idea that instead of buying sugar that made slave plantation owners prosperous, consumers should buy maple sugar and syrup and keep local farmers thriving.”

Early spring is maple sugaring time in the Northeast. Maple syrup has been much in the news of late. What a perfect topic for today’s post!

Maple syrup is far healthier than any processed sweetener. It is an excellent source of manganese, riboflavin, and zinc. It also contains significant amounts of magnesium, calcium, and potassium, and is lower in calories than honey or brown sugar, averaging 50 calories per tablespoon. Purely a plant product, maple syrup is vegan-friendly.

The Native Peoples were turning maple sap into sugar long before the colonists arrived.  It is unclear when the Native Americans began boiling the sap to make sugar. An early account describes the extraction of sugar by freezing. The maple and its sap are the subject of many tribal myths

Maple syrup is produced only in North America and is an important agricultural product in several northern states and southern Canadian provinces. Maple syrup is Vermont’s signature agricultural productAs the industry leader in the US, Vermont produces nearly 40% of the nation’s maple syrup—over one million gallons in the near record year of 2011!

The Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association has an excellent website with sections devoted to the history of maple syrup, its manufacture, recipes, and special events. 

Here is a brief summary of how maple syrup is made. When temperatures reach 45° F during the day, and the nights remain below freezing, it’s time to tap the sugar maple trees. The sugarmaker drills a hole in the trunk, inserts a tap, and starts collecting the sap. The sap is brought to the sugarhouse where it is boiled down. Sap looks like clear water and averages 2-3% sugar content. It takes 40 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup, with a sugar content of just under 67%. Once the trees begin to leaf out, the season is over.

Climate scientists are concerned about the future of maple sugaring
The 2012 season was deemed “too warm.” A series of heat waves in March forced the early budding of maple trees in all the New England states except Maine, bringing the maple syrup season to an abrupt close. Vermont produced 750,000 gallons of syrup last year, down 32% from 2011. 

Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada, is seeking graduate students who want to study the impact of a changing climate upon this industry through an interdisciplinary program called Maple Syrup and Maple Leaves

Maple syrup is an extremely valuable commodity. The 2011 price per gallon of syrup was $37.90. The US value for production was $106 million.

The Great Maple Syrup Heist.
Last year Canadian authorities arrested 18 individuals in connection with the theft of 9,600 barrels of maple syrup from a warehouse in Quebec, siphoned off between August 2011 and July 2012. The value of the syrup was $18 million dollars!

The US is not exempt from Maple Syrup crimes. The US Forest Service rangers in Maine have reported an increase in unauthorized tapping of maple trees on private property. To compound the problem, thieves are using drill bits that are too large, placing four taps where they should be placing just one, and using PVC piping that damages the trees. These actions make the trees more susceptible to decay and disease.

Writing this post has stirred up some memories. Years ago, friends in Swanton, Vermont invited us to help out as they tapped their trees and boiled down the sap in a sugarhouse they shared with their neighbors. Decades later I can still feel and taste the heavy, sweet, maple steam that filled that tiny house as the sap boiled away…

Have a great week.

I often blog on food or food issues on Monday in support of Meatless Monday, one of several programs developed in the Healthy Monday project, founded in 2003 in association with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications. Meatless Monday’s goal is “to help reduce meat consumption 15% in order to improve personal health and the health of our planet.”

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