Maple Syrup

I’M ONE OF THOSE annoying people who doesn’t really have much of a sweet tooth—except when it comes to the amber sweetness and crumble of maple. You’ll forgive me if I don’t miss much about the brutal winters of western New York, where I lived for fifteen years, tromping in knee-high snow as I walked to campus to teach, almost sliding off the thruway too many times to count, and waiting in multiple strandings at the airport. But sometime in February, just when we grew restless and a little weary from the lack of color all winter, from the scarves, boots, shovels, and crockpot stews, we’d feel the flurries of my favorite type of snow: a sugar snow, thick and heavy, hugging the base of the sugarbush—what a forest of sugar maples made for tapping is called—while keeping the roots cool enough that they don’t start developing leaves just yet.

It takes forty to fifty gallons of sap to make just one gallon of syrup, with constant stirring and skimming off the foam, so I was all too happy to let the good folks at Maple Glen Sugarhouse do that magnificent work. I loved bringing my young boys up there just after a sugar snow to sample doughnuts and our favorite maple candies, small leaf-shaped sweets made of tightly packed maple sugar that crumble and melt in your mouth. One year, the owners even let my youngest have the honor of tap-tap-tapping a spile into a tree in front of a crowded tour, and that’s all he could talk about for months.

 

That sugar moon, or sap moon, signals one more taste of sweet and quiet nights, before the cacophony of frogs reminds us of the burst and blossom soon to come, even after the deepest winter.

 

If you can’t get to a sugarhouse in late winter, the taste of maple may still be closer than you think. Pack some fresh snow in a casserole dish and leave it outside or in the freezer. Boil about a quarter cup of pure maple syrup until a candy thermometer reads 240 degrees Fahrenheit. Drizzle it right onto the snow and you’ve made maple taffy. (But don’t burn your tongue—it will be piping hot even on the snow.)

I’ve tasted several from Vermont, like Summit Maple Farm’s, and some from Belgium spread inside stroopwafel, but I still find it quite difficult to describe the flavor of maple syrup. Thankfully there’s a reason for my fumble: ninety-one unique flavors are actually at work, according to the Canadian Department of Agriculture. They drew up a “flavour wheel” organized among thirteen families: vanilla, milky, empyreumatic (burned), floral, fruity, spicy, foreign (as in fermentation), foreign (as in something added), herbaceous, plant (forest, humus, or cereals), plant (ligneous, as in firewood or sawdust), maple, and finally confectionery.

Before I ever knew the name of the first full moon late in winter, I noticed it always glowed extra bright. Maybe the faintest perfume of the woods smells just slightly different, or perhaps we are so used to darkness enveloping the northern states. But that sugar moon, or sap moon, signals one more taste of sweet and quiet nights, before the cacophony of frogs reminds us of the burst and blossom soon to come, even after the deepest winter. In sugaring season, fresh maple bacon and maple syrup poured over a plate of steaming waffles or a bowl of steel-cut oats signals the small promise of green bud and light slit into our kitchen just a little earlier each morning. We prepare for the sweetness of a new season with actual sugar on our lips—a little bit of sweetness for the start of our garden, and the first shoots of crocus pushing through the sugar snow.

 

Read more from Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s Taste of Wonder column. 

 

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Aimee Nezhukumatathil is the author of the New York Times best-selling illustrated collection of nature essays and Kirkus Prize finalist, WORLD OF WONDERS: IN PRAISE OF FIREFLIES, WHALE SHARKS, & OTHER ASTONISHMENTS (2020, Milkweed Editions), which was chosen as Barnes and Noble’s Book of the Year. She has four previous poetry collections: OCEANIC (Copper Canyon Press, 2018), LUCKY FISH (2011), AT THE DRIVE-IN VOLCANO (2007), and MIRACLE FRUIT (2003), the last three from Tupelo Press. Her most recent chapbook is LACE & PYRITE, a collaboration of epistolary garden poems with the poet Ross Gay. Her writing appears twice in the Best American Poetry Series, The New York Times Magazine, ESPNPloughshares, American Poetry Review, and Tin House. Honors include a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Pushcart Prize, a Mississippi Arts Council grant, and being named a Guggenheim Fellow in poetry. In 2021, she became the first-ever poetry editor for SIERRA magazine, the story-telling arm of The Sierra Club. She is professor of English and Creative Writing in the University of Mississippi’s MFA program.

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