Sunday, February 28, 2010

Maple Tapping For Syrup--Wild Edible #4

Let us know if these ideas help you or if you have better ones for us.

1. Gather Your Materials: Here’s what we use.
  • 20-40 Stainless steel buckets (these come with a little reinforced hole up by the rim to hang on the tap)
  • 20-40 Bucket covers (I like the kind that slide on rather than the flaps)
  • 20-40 Metal taps
  • 40-60 gallon plastic storage drum
  • Hammer
  • cordless power drill with appropriate bit for taps (3/8” for us--I think)

    2. Pick the Right Time: In our area, southern Vermont, that is usually early March, but it can be later or earlier. The sap will run when there are spring days that are enough above freezing but cool nights when the temperature drops back down below freezing again.

    3. Select Your Trees: It’s important to be able to identify sugar maples by their bark. They have no leaves at the time of year that the sap runs. They can be identified by their buds, but if a tree is big enough to tap, the buds will usually be well out of sight. Learning to identify trees by bark takes practice. It helps to have a teacher and several good guides. Line drawings and descriptions do not easily convey bark textures. Photographs aren’t great, but they’re the best thing you can get in a guide. I like the Audobon Society guide for this. Even though the Peterson guide has a much better key, it doesn’t have photographs.

    4. Tap Your Trees: We load all our materials into a sled as we go from tree-to-tree. We tap to a depth of almost two inches and angle upward as we drill. Some good taps will be dripping before the drill is even out of the tree. I usually blow the waste shavings away and get a good whistling sound from the tap’s hole. We try to keep in mind that the snow we are walking on now will be melting as the season goes on. What may be chest-height now might be over our heads in a few weeks. We use a hammer to gently tap the tap (get it) into the hole and hang the bucket on the tap itself. I prefer the taps that can hang the bucket directly rather than the ones that require a hook. I also like to watch the first drops hit the bucket’s bottom. Not only is it a satisfying sound, it’s also a great way to make sure that the sap is dripping where you want it and not down the side of the tree. Slide on your cover and move on to the next tree. Check your buckets tomorrow to see what you’ve got.

    5. Tap Gently: Sugaring is great because you don’t have to kill any plants in the process, but it’s good to remember that you are affecting the tree’s overall health and strength. Try to use narrow taps and don’t hang more than one bucket on a tree unless it’s a giant. Natives once got sap by slashing large V-shaped notches in the tree. This made sense in an age of stone tools, but I think it’s unfair to our much diminished forests to use such a damaging practice these days. Taps are cheap. Please use them.

Maple Sugaring--Our Story

We sugar at our friend Carl’s house. Carl is a mechanic, radio guy, and all-around tinkerer who makes his own vegetable-based fuels and plows his driveway with an ancient truck that has no breaks. “Putting the plow down will stop you.” Carl has been a great friend and mentor to us. We would not have gotten through our first years in Vermont without his generosity.

Carl and his son, Abe, have built a sugar shack for the sugaring season from odds and ends. They are remarkable scroungers. This year Carl has replaced his small evaporator with a new pan which used to be a commercial operator’s old finishing pan. The fire is built in a big chamber beneath the pan made of cinder blocks. This year, we went up earlier than usual. “I don’t usually like to start in February,” Carl said, but the warm weather during the days had started the sap running. Baby Yub Yub, rode in the sled with the taps and buckets. When she got tired of that, she splashed in the muddy potholes in the driveway. Carl had already set the taps for about half of the buckets. We did the other half. We helped reset the cinder blocks around his stove and admired Carl’s new and larger chimney. Thag also dug out a deep hole in the nearby bank of snow for a big 50 gallon bucket. We will empty the buckets we gather from the trees into this drum when the evaporating pan is full.

Why Maple

Are you kidding? The answer is flavor, flavor, flavor. This has got to be one of the best-tasting wild edibles on the planet. I read once that colonial Europeans in New England looked upon maple sugar as a second-rate replacement for the crystal of cane sugar that they imported from the Caribbean. I’m not quite sure what was wrong with them. These days maple sugar and maple syrup are the gourmet stuff. Aunt Jemimah ain’t sitting on the fancy tablecloths at your local 5-star breakfast establishment. This is the reason that maple syrup is one of the only wild foods that is commercially available on a large scale.

If flavor isn’t enough of a reason to convince you to try your hand at sugaring here are

Three More Reason To Gather Maple Syrup

1. Calories—Unlike modern Americans, the forager is actually on the lookout for more calories. Foragers want to get enough energy from their food to keep their bodies going and make up for all the energy that they expend. And syrup is a high calorie food.

2. More Nutritious Sweetener—The only processing that happens to foraged maple syrup is boiling. According to whole foods zealot, Sally Fallon, maple syrup is “rich in trace minerals, brought up from below ground by the trees deep roots.” She goes on to say that,”Unfortunately, formaldehyde is used in the production of most commercial maple syrup.” Tap your own!

3. Company—Sugaring is a big job. You could always do small batches over your lonely stove and fog up all the windows in your house as the water evaporates from the sap. Or you could pitch in with friends and do the process in style, swapping stories as you all sit around and watch the sap boil.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Winter Tea Party--Edibles #2 and #3

Left to right: Hemlock, Mint Hemlock, Mint Pine, Sweet Birch, and Eastern White Pine

Tonight we held a tea taste test. Having had hemlock and pine tea before, we both remembered their Christmassy flavor being quite similar and so wanted to compare the two. We also wanted to see if adding some mint might temper and improve the flavor. So we threw a tea party!

And the verdict is: one member of the party stopped tasting after the first two! Another loved the hemlock but really disliked the mint combinations. Thag and I both preferred the mild flavor of the pine to the hemlock and felt that the mint overpowered the pine and fought for power with the hemlock. We added sweet birch (which we both love) as a palate clenser. The birch needed a longer steep, but its Pepto Bismol aroma (yes, we like the pink stuff--but if you prefer, you can call the smell wintergreen) and anise flavor left us longing for a root beer.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Plant Nerds Are Cool

Tonight we attended the not-so-surprise birthday party of a good friend. We were chatting with the other party-goers over some excellent Thai food, when I shared the Foraging Family project.

"That's so cool. Can I come foraging?"

"I know a good spot on 295 in Maine where there is some wild rice."

"What do you think your staples will be?"

Wow! People seemed to think that our nerdy little project was cool!

Doesn't it just make you wish that you could go back in time to your middle school self and send them a message from the future. "Don't worry. If you just hold out long enough, you'll find your peeps."

New Plant Books

There are two new books on their way to bookstore shelves this year, and they've got me (Thag) psyched. They are:

Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods from Dirt to Plate by John Kallas. This is the guy from Wild Food Adventures. Check out this essay on dandelions for a taste of why I am so looking forward to this one.

Nature's Garden by Samuel Thayer. His first book is my bible, and Sam is my edible plant hero. If I could only have one plant book, it would be his.

Neither of these books is out yet, but they are available for pre-order from your favorite small, independent, local bookseller.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

What did they eat in winter?

The ground is frozen and covered with snow. Even partridgeberries are hard to find. To gather anything in quantity, you'd have to have memorized or marked locations in the fall. Yet people lived on this land for thousands of years. Was this just a hungry month? Did they store up huge quantities of nuts like the squirrels do? Did they live on meat alone? During the colonial periods, the local Abenaki probably lived on stores of corn and beans. But what about before agriculture arrived in New England? What did they eat then? As for me, I am grateful to live in a world of seemingly infinite food abundance. Last weekend, I was even eating strawberries!! It seems almost obscene.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Signing Up Again

We try to balance give and take here at the Foraging Family. So, to give a little something back to the plants that will grace our table this year, I will be volunteering as a Plant Conservation Volunteer (PCV) through the New England Wildflower Society (NEWFS).

I'm excited about the work. It sound a little like being a spy for nature. We sign up for missions. We have to keep the whereabouts of our missions secret so that the word does not get out about the classified locations of the rare plants that we will be monitoring. We count and catalog the rare plants that we see and send our information back to headquarters via a secure Internet site. When we're not doing this, we track down and assassinate invaders that might threaten the safety of our native citizens.

And all that's required to sign up is some knowledge about keying plants. Giving back to the land was never so easy or so cool.

Agent Double-O Thag Signing Out

Signing Up

"Yes. Hi, I'm not sure I have the right number."
"Are you calling about the hunter safety course?"
"Yes," somewhat relieved.
"OK. Let me find the paperwork here. I've done something clever with it."
"Uh . . . I don't have a gun. Is that OK?"
"That's all right. We provide all the firearms."
"Oh . . Great. And is it all right if . . . I mean . . . I've never really shot a gun before or a bow. Or, at least, not really. There was one time in Boy Scout camp--"
Awkward pause.
"You want to sign up for the course?"
"All right. Your signed up. Just come to the gun club at 8:00."
"That's it?"
"Well, you'll need $35 for the lisence because it's a combination bow and rifle lisence."
"Oh . . well . . . thanks."

* * *

Who would have thought that the long-haired, vegetarian, environmentalist would be signing up for the hunting permit? And yet here I am, in some hair-brained quest to eat from the land planning to spend a day at the gun club shooting things.

When I was younger I dreamed that if I ever hunted it would be with a bow, the old way, like the native hunters. Yet, if I ever do get to the point of actually trying to kill an animal, I doubt I'll do it with the bow. I want to be quick and merciful. I want a sure shot with as little pain as possible. I've heard that most bow hunters end up following a bloody track through the brush until they find the spot where their quarry has finally succumbed to exhaustion. That's a price too high for "getting in touch with my roots."

Who knows if I'll even try going down this foraging route? Would I pull the trigger? I saw a deer bound through the hemlock trees on Friday and wondered.

In gratitude that I get to share this land with such remarkable neighbors,