Maple Syrup – Exploring Canadian Culture

Collecting the sap in the sugar bush

Since finishing the ‘year of digs’ and returning to my homeland I’ve been thinking about the different cultures I’ve encountered and what gives my own culture it’s Canadian-ness. There are lots of stereotypes about Canadians, some of which are true (we are ‘nice’ and ‘polite’ and if being ‘boring’ results in a fairly stable banking system I’m all for it). But when I think about how culture is expressed I inevitably start to dream about food. In my archaeology travels encounters with local ways of preparing and eating food are often my entry point into cultural understanding. There are ingredients, but also the kitchens and the tools used to prepare meals. For me the most Canadian food is maple syrup – especially when it is produced the ‘old fashioned’ way.

The author collecting sap in the sugar bush

True maple syrup is made entirely from sap collected from maple trees – there can be no added ingredients. The sap is collected in the spring and boiled down to make the thick sticky syrup that Canadians love to put on their pancakes. I’ve even had eggs fried in maple syrup! This is a delicacy I heartily thank my French Canadian friends for – 75% of the world’s maple syrup comes from Quebec so they really know what they’re doing. To make maple syrup, sap can be collected from the red maple, black maple, but most commonly from the sugar maple tree. During Canada’s cold winter the trees store starch in their trunks and roots, which they then convert to sugar in the early spring. The sap only flows when the trees are warm so collecting takes place during the day. Syrup season lasts 4-8 weeks and trees that are big enough to be tapped can produce up to 50 litres (13 US gal) of sap per season. Once the spring weather becomes warm, the tree’s normal biological processes change the sap and it’s no longer good for syrup.

The sap to syrup ratio (Fulton’s Sugar Bush)

To find out more about the industrial side of production and the science behind the syrup I stopped at in a local producer – Fulton’s Pancake House and Sugar Bush – to take a tour and try some maple baked beans! To make maple syrup 20-50 volumes of sap is boiled until 1 volume of syrup is created. In Canada the boiled sap can only be called syrup once it has reached a density of 66 degrees on the Brix scale. The length of time syrup is boiled needs to be closely monitored so the sap doesn’t crystalise! The sugar content of the sap can vary depending on environmental and biological conditions and can even vary within the same tree. Maple sap is mostly composed of sucrose and water with minimal amounts of glucose and fructose. There are also flavour compounds such as maple furanone, strawberry furanone, and maltol present – but amazingly the factor that makes maple syrup so maple-y is still unknown!

A commercial processing room at Fulton’s Sugar Bush

The first peoples to harvest maple sap were the indigenous groups of northeastern North America – like the Algonquin Nation from the area where I was born and raised. Oral traditions indicate that maple sap was harvested long before any Europeans set foot in the Americas. Various legends and oral histories tell of how maple sap was used in place of water for cooking – or how Squirrel was seen cutting holes in maple bark and eating the sap. First Nations peoples used organic, multi-purpose materials and tools to collect maple sap – such as axes to cut slits in the bark, reeds to insert into the slits and birch-bark buckets to collect the dripping sap. Bark and reeds quickly decompose and so these first harvesting tools do not leave a strong ‘maple syrup’ signature in the archaeological record – unlike the metal implements used by European colonists. However, the Europeans who exported maple sugar out of (what is now) Canada in the 1670’s certainly learned the process from someone…. For me it is clear that Canada’s First Nations were the creators of my favourite sweet treat.

Steam rises up from the boiling sap in the sugarshack

After Europeans started harvesting maple sap in the late 1600’s the means of production began to change. Drilling tapholes in tree trunks with augers became the common method of collecting and the sap was boiled down mostly to create a concentrated sugar. Early production was more like the home-made syrup we see today than the highly industrialised modern operations that literally vacuum the sap from the tree. I visited a neighbour’s sugar bush this spring and was delighted to be able to help out in a traditional sugar shack (a.k.a. cabane à sucre). The sap is collected in metal buckets that hang on plastic spouts on the sides of trees. When they’re full the buckets are emptied and re-hung, and the sap is brought to the sugar shack. The inside is steamy and warm and filled with the scent of boiling maple syrup. The new sap is poured into an elevated trough which slowly adds the new liquid to the large trough of boiling syrup below. In a traditional sugar shack the maple sap is boiled over a wood fire and the roof is louvered to let out the steam. I didn’t want to leave. I could have inhaled that maple air all day and night.

Scraping the foam from the boiling sap

In my family we love maple syrup that is dark in colour with a robust flavour, but Grade-A syrup can vary from golden in colour with a delicate taste all the way to very dark with a strong taste. There are so many ways to use it and I personally like to replace the sugar in baking with maple syrup. If you have never poured real maple syrup over vanilla ice cream you are missing out! When I was a young child we took school trips to the sugar bush where we could see the sap being boiled down and were treated to freshly made maple syrup poured into fresh snow to make maple taffy. It is these small details of life that come together to create a sense of self and culture – something to keep in mind when we are thinking about people in the past and how they used the resources around them.

Maple sap flowing