Monday, March 22, 2010

Birch Syrup--Edible #5--Our Story

Well, our birches started producing this week. We are a bit early, but we were nervous about missing the season. For the last five days, we have collected between 1/2 and 1 gallon of sap from each tree and boiled it down on our stovetop. It boiled down quite rapidly--within an hour or two our soup pot had just a trace of brown syrup covering the bottom. We were very unscientific about the process--no candy thermometers or grading going on here. But we now have about 3/4 of a cup of birch syrup in our fridge.
The verdict: yum! Although our taste buds are honed for the maple flavor, birch syrup is still quite good. It smells like a good day in the garden in early spring. My favorite new edible so far, and the sap boiling makes the house smell great!

Birch Syrup--Edible #5--A history


The first time we encountered birch syrup was on our honeymoon in Alaska. Being from New England we didn't realize you could tap trees other than maples, but sure enough most, if not all, birches produce sweet and tasty syrup. However, we were shocked by the sticker price. The lovely, dark liquid cost 2 to 3 times that of maple syrup. Then we discovered that while it takes 40 gallons of maple sap to produce 1 gallon of syrup, it takes 60 to 100 gallons of birch sap to produce 1 gallon of syrup.
Birch syruping is a much smaller business than its maple counterpart. Most of the industry is in Alaska and Russia with a few smaller operations in Canada. In addition to the scale and price increase, the season is also prohibitive. The birch season lasts about a week--often around the last week of the maple season. However, during this short period, each birch tree will produce gallons of sap a day. And while only sugar maples produce really tasty syrup, most species of birch can be tapped for a similarly sweet syrup.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Black Gum? --A Foraging Family Mystery

As the days lengthen, I have been able to steal a few minute after work to explore the forests that surround our house. Last week, I found a twisted, gnarled tree with deeply furrowed bark in a black ash swamp. I looked again and tried not to get my hopes up. Nyssa sylvatica, the black gum tree, is a rare find here in Vermont where it is at the far northern edge of its range. So far as I know, there are no edible parts of the black gum. Even if there were, I would never harvest anything from this precious visitor from the South.

The dried remains of a leathery leaf hung from a nearby twig. I flattened them gently between my fingers.

Could it be? I'm still not sure.

I'll have to wait until all the snow melts or the first leaves push out of their buds. But that is a month and a half from now. Spring advances, and we wait. Me, the foraging family, and a beautiful and mysterious tree in the nearby swamp.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Sugaring Birches: Part 2

Some hypotheses about why my birch taps have not produced for two days in a row.

OK. So there was one drop on the bottom of the bucket, but it had dried before I got there. What gives?

Hypothesis #1: It's too early. Carl thought that the season for birches might not have started yet. Peterson's suggested range for tapping maples goes from late January to early April. For birches they say late March and April.

Hypothesis #2: It's the weather. Lucy came over this evening and I told her of my dry birch taps. She said that her maple taps had stopped running over the last two days as well. She'd heard that it was caused by the air pressure. Whoa!! What a cool thought! It made sense to me. The sap flows through big long tubes in the tree's trunk (xylem and phloem). Sap moves up through a process called capillary action. Pressure is an important variable here. So even though the weather has been textbook for sugar (with warm, sunny days and freezing nights), the maples and everything else have stopped flowing. That's so cool. I've got to learn more about this one.

Sugaring Birches: Part 1

This week I borrowed some buckets and an old hand drill from our friend, Ken, and set out to tap some birches. I tapped Betula lenta (Black Birch), but Peterson's says that all the birches have edible sap. Our friend, Tifin, said that she did not care for birch syrup when she tried it in Alaska where there is a dearth of maple trees. Apparently the wintergreen flavor of the twigs does not transfer to the syrup. My co-worker, Matt, and I speculated that the molecules that give the twigs that fresh flavor might be changed at high temperatures. Undeterred, I set out to experiment and learn what I could.

At first I thought that only two taps would not be enough, but Abe said that over the course of the season one can expect to get about one quart of maple syrup from each tap. That's 10 gallons of sap from each tap! Birch sap supposedly flows even more prodigiously. After thinking about it that way, two taps seemed just fine.

I found two goodly sized trees and tapped away only to find that the next day there was . . . nothing. The buckets were dry.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Sugaring—Our Story

“Make sure to bring some food,” Carl had said before we left to go sugaring up at his place. Apparently, he expected a crowd. We drove up with ziti for baking. The dirt roads were a little soft, but the real mud hadn’t started yet. It was Saturday, and it was beautiful after a freezing night, perfect for sugaring.

Abe and I started a fire in the cinder block firebox (called an arch by folks in the sugaring business—I don’t know why), and we tested the evaporating pan for leaks with a little water. Two feet of snow hung dangerously of the end of the house’s metal roof right over the drum I had dug into the snowbank the previous weekend.

It sure was a party. People came and went all day. Carl and Deb, Abe and Lisa, Matt and Hannah, Ooga, Yub-yub, and I, Matt’s mother, and another friend of Carl and Abe’s. In my busy life, sometimes so full of suffocating responsibilities, I have not enjoyed a real party in a long time. As I hauled buckets with new and old friends, I felt nourished in a way that I haven’t felt in too long a time. There may be no greater pleasure than many hands set to a common work.