Crisp early morning sunlight filters through the moss on the trees...
Our Executive Chef, Wade Rowland leaves the kitchen at the Environmental Learning Centre (ELC) and heads down towards the longhouse. Roughly every 40 to 50 feet there is a 16-litre bucket connected to a broad leaf maple tree. The conditions are text book perfection for harvesting sap - an overnight temperature between -3° and -5° Celsius, with daytime temperatures into the mid to high teens. Sunlight is hitting the bark, stimulating the sapwood and phloem layer to start moving sap from the root ball up to the buds to feed the next generation of leaves.
Three of the jugs are about 1/3 to 1/2 full while two others have just less than one liter. Chef Wade grabs some empty jugs and walks over to the first tree to swap out the jugs. The jugs are transparent, so it is easy to see if there is any sap just by looking at it. The jug is connected to the spiel or tap by a length of food grade plastic hosing, the kind you would find in a wine making kit. The tap is made from a rugged black plastic and is snugged into a borehole driven two inches into the tree at a shallow upward angle using a drill bit (7/16th) and a battery powered drill. The hose is pulled from the jug connected to the tree and inserted into the clean empty jug. The jugs have all been pre-drilled with a hole located on the inside vertical part of the handle so that rain drains away from it. It is important to ensure that the hose is inserted at least six to seven inches into the jug, so any sudden wind patterns can be avoided or aid in any animals tipping it over.
Since last year, tapping maple trees on-site has become an activity that is shared with the visiting grade six students. What started as a cool thing that Chef Wade wanted to do, has now developed into a hands-on experiential learning session with school kids. This activity is often worked into their forest studies.
What’s the lesson plan?
First, students compare colour, taste and texture of the various stages of the sap. From raw sap, to the sap reduced by half, and reduced even further to prepare the syrup. Chef Wade discusses the processes of turning sap into syrup. They determine what equipment is required to tap the tree and how to collect the sap; and discuss the best time to collect that sap and why. Next, they collect all the equipment essential to tap the maple tree and head outside. They go down the forest foot path to find a broad leaf maple tree. Along the way they practice the ability to recognize the identifying characteristics of maples, which can be surprisingly tricky to recognize when there is snow on the ground. They proceed step-by-step to select a tree, decide where to make a bore hole, and finally attach the bucket, hose, and spiel together and insert it into the tree. When it is time to tag the tree, the students will assist in selecting a name for the tree. As you can image, some of these names are pretty inventive. 😉
Chef Wade will hold this activity twice a day with a class for a dozen or so students. They discuss how photosynthesis works, where the simple sugars we all need come from, (turns out that everything you eat is some form of converted sunlight) and where the big leaf maple trees lives and how to identify them.
As mentioned, all the maple trees on the property have tags. These tags record several things, the date the tree was tapped, the circumference of the tree, the school group that assisted in tapping it (including the name of the tree), and finally the number of the tree. For example, “Tree #11, a mature maple with a circumference of 5’ 8” was tapped by the students of St. Pius, St. Mary’s and Holy Trinity Elementary Schools, Blue Group, on Dec 19th and is named Albert”. Last year, Chef Wade and the students from the 4-Day Outdoor School programs tapped a total of 20 maple trees on the property. So far this year, it is about the same and hopefully the same outcome will be received, if not better!
How is the sap reduced?
Chef Wade brings the buckets into the kitchen and pours the sap through a cheese cloth into a graduated 4-litre pitcher. After recording the volume, he pours the sap into a stock pot, bringing it to a boil for two minutes. He determines if he would like the “raw” or un-reduced sap. 90% of the time he will reduce the sap by half before freezing. At 50% it has colour and flavour but is still the viscosity of water. This is how it will be stored.
“Albert” produced 8 litres of sap, which was in addition to the 8 litres “Albert” provided three days prior, for a total of 16 litres, which was used in a few our recipes.
What else is recorded?
To track the success (and failures), Chef Wade also records weather conditions, temperature, in addition to the volume of sap daily. This data set after a couple of years will help guide and discover the mysteries of when trees produce their sap.
Chef Wade then contemplates recipes where he can use this resource. Yummy!