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Maple syrup-making: a cozy spring ritual

Making maple syrup is an early spring custom in eastern Canada. It starts with putting tubes into the trunks of sugar maples and waiting for sap to collect from the trees.

There's one thing that tourists to Canada almost always bring back home: bottles of that amber-colored sweet liquid known as maple syrup. But where does it come from, exactly? Even some Canadians aren't all that familiar with the process.

    "Is the maple syrup running in the tree trunks?" an urban-dwelling Canadian friend once asked me.

    Not exactly. The syrup is made from the sap, but the sap is not syrup.

    My daughter Natsuki waits to lap up sap from a tree.

    Seven winters ago, I moved from Japan with my husband and two children to a rural community in Ontario. Ever since then, we have made maple syrup in our own backyard.

    Natsuki helps her aunt collect sap.

    Making maple syrup is something people of this area eagerly await after the long winter, when temperatures drop as low as minus 25 degrees Celsius. It is the harbinger of spring.

    The First Nations people in this area call this sweetener "Sinzibuckwud," which literally translates as "drawn from the wood." For generations, they passed down maple syrup production techniques and shared them with European settlers. Their legend about the origins of the process goes as follows:

    Putting wood in the fire is heart-warming work.
    My husband Victor boils down collected sap.

    A hunter once came home empty-handed, and in frustration he threw his spear at a maple tree, leaving a hole. Overnight, sap dripped from the tree -- and the hunter's tribe found it was very sweet. Soon, the whole tribe started using this sweet water. But the Great Spirit, having noticed that the people had stopped working diligently and were just enjoying the maple tree's delicious liquid, caused a great rain to fall, forever diluting the sweet water. That's why people have to boil it down today.

    Another way to enjoy the syrup is to cool it into candy in the snow.

    Maple syrup is made from the sap of sugar maple trees. Syrup season begins when the night temperature remains below zero degrees Celsius but the daytime temperature is above zero, which is usually in March in this region.

    To make maple syrup, a small hole is first drilled into the tree. Then, a spout is inserted for sap collection (tapping). Depending on the size of the trunk, one or more taps are attached. Traditionally, metal buckets or other types of containers are placed below them to hold the sap. More of the liquid flows on warm days, but when the night temperature rises above zero, the sap stops.

    The boiled down syrup is passed through a filter.

    This year, our family friend Megan Lane from Toronto helped us collect the sap, which tastes like very slightly sweetened water.

    "I've tasted Mother Nature," she remarked after sampling the sap dripping from one tree. "And the water is sweet!"

    The art of boiling, or "sugaring off," the sap requires patience. Traditionally, it is done over an open fire for several days. Forty liters of sap are needed to make 1 liter of syrup, and the fire needs to be constantly tended so that it boils but doesn't overflow.

    When the boiling nears an end, how does one know when to stop? A thermometer reading of 104 degrees means the syrup is ready. If it is boiled down thicker than this, sugar crystals tend to form in the container as it cools. In the rugged backyard style of sugaring off, filtering is necessary before bottling, since the syrup may contain undesirable foreign objects.

    The syrup is finally bottled.

    Early in the season, the sugar content of the sap is higher, so the syrup finishes lighter in color. Later, the sugar content of the sap is lower and boiling takes a little longer, so it takes on a darker shade.

    Bottled maple syrup.

    This year I spent a few weeks in March collecting sap twice a day, taking turns with others to sit by the fire. While commercial producers use modern equipment and technology, almost everyone else willingly makes maple syrup the old-fashioned way, since it is a type of ritual for celebrating the end of winter. Watching the fire and feeding in pieces of wood is a mesmerizing experience that brings inexplicable tranquility. It also beckons friends and family who want to join in the celebration of making maple syrup -- just as many have done for generations. (Story and photos by Naomi Ono, special to The Mainichi)

    Map of eastern Canada. (Mainichi)

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