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How sweet it is

One of my elementary school highlights was a Sugaring-Off party field trip we took in the fourth grade. Within an hour of our departure, we found ourselves deep within the Quebec wilderness. Oak, birch and elm trees were abundant, but the greatest population was that of the maple, the focus of our journey.

It was mid February and the daytime temps were just right, climbing above freezing. The ground snow cover was almost completely melted, yet during the night, the forest would sleep in subfreezing temps. The conditions were perfect for harvesting tree sap to make maple syrup.

First order of business was to listen to our teachers warn us about the ramifications we would face if we didn’t follow the standard field trip protocols (no running, no shouting, no arguing, no fighting, and to do what we were told ).

I found it interesting that during the lecture, the teachers were looking directly at me. I really didn’t care. I was focused on one thing, the sugar rush that was going to keep me up all night. Let the party begin.

After being divided into groups of four or five, we were escorted out into the forest to watch a tapping demonstration. It was a very straightforward process. Once you pre-drill a hole in a maple tree, a tap was hammered in until it was seated deep and snug (valve on top and spout facing down). Then the valve was opened and the pail with floppy lid was hung onto the tap. That was all there was to it.

I urgently raised my hand, and when it was my turn to speak I asked, “Are we going to drill holes in the trees?” Our guide smiled and suggested that we help in a more productive way; collection. I was eager to help in any way I could.

A tractor suddenly appeared towing a trailer behind it. On the trailer was a couple of huge tanks, opened at the top. Our job was to go tree to tree, turn off the valve, remove the pail and carefully, without spilling any of the contents, hand the pail to the man on the trailer so he could pour the sap into the holding tanks. Then we would return the empty pails to their tap and switch the valve back into the on position. In just under an hour we had both holding tanks full. It was now party time.

Back at la cabana a sucre (the Sugar Shack) we watched as our sap harvest was transferred from the tanks on the trailer to a huge holding tank inside the shack, passing through multiple filters along the way. It can take up to three hours of boiling to reduce 10 gallons of sap to one gallon of finished product. Planning ahead, our hosts had a huge cauldron full of sap hanging only inches above the flames. It had been cooking for many hours now and most of the water within the sap had evaporated, leaving us with 100% pure maple syrup.

It was now time for la tire d’erable sur la neige (maple taffy, aka “sugar on snow”). When you take hot maple syrup and slowly pour it over snow, it creates a soft, irresistible taffy. The taste and texture, when coupled with the warmth of the maple syrup, creates a tasting event that will stay with you for life. Even now, some 55 years later, I can still taste it. How sweet it is.

Richard Hunter lives in Jacksonville.

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