Friday, April 30, 2010

Dandelion Marmalade

Last week, we went visiting in Boston, and while our friend nursed her baby under a perfectly blue sky, Baby Yub Yub and I collected dandelions in the field. It was an idyllic moment. Our hands were left bitter tasting and colored yellow, but we had a bag full of dandelion flowers.

Back home, I carefully separated the flower petals from all the green parts. This was easy but time consuming—and the baby was very helpful—carefully placing her own flower heads in a Tupperware bowl and stirring them with a spoon. I was on a mission. Making jam is one of my passions, and as soon as I saw a recipe for dandelion marmalade, I got excited.

The following recipe is my own:

3 oranges
1 lemon
1 cup dandelion flowers—no green parts
½ box suregel, lower suger recipe
2 ½ cups sugar
1 ¼ cups water

Peel oranges and lemon. Chop peel into tiny pieces. Combine with water in a pot. Bring to a boil. Simmer 20 minutes.

Peel and discard the rest of the white rind.

Chop oranges and lemon into small chunks. Add to rind. Cook 12 minutes.

Mix suregel and ½ cup sugar.

Add sugar/suregel mixture and dandelion flowers to citrus. Cook until boiling. Stir often.

Add sugar. Stir constantly. Return to full boil. Boil 1 minute, stirring the whole time.

Ladle into hot sterilized jars. Process in hot water bath for 10 minutes.

This recipe is a 5!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Cattail Rhizome

Samuel Thayer said it could be done, so we went out and tried it. And boy was this fun! The starchy core of the cattail rhizome can be processed to retrieve a flour. The gathering required a mucky walk into the cattail marsh. I tread carefully. Beneath a soggy lattice of cattail leaves and fallen branches was a sucking mud that I wondered if I could eject myself from if I got stuck.

The process took a bit of finesse. I started by finding an old stalk and following it by hand through the cold, opaque waters and into the sulpherous muck. Feeling around, I would eventually grasp onto something that felt more like a rope than the surrounding sticks. Then I'd reach beneath with my knife, careful to cut the rhizome and not my fingers. Then I gently pulled on the cut end. Somewhere, several feet away, the few tentative early leaves of an early cattail stalk would dunk below the surface like the tail of a duck. A few gentle tugs and it would emerge in my hand at the end of a foot or two of alien-looking tentacle.

When done, I was mucky, smelly, and happy.

The next day we were leaving for Boston, and I was unprepared for the time that processing the bagful of uneartly things would take. I mangled the first few roots, losing most of the starch as I fumbled with the technique of pushing off the spongy rind with my thumb. It was one o'clock in the morning when I finished with the sticky pile and set it to dry on a baking sheet. The house was quiet and I felt at peace. It was the end of a week of break from school. The work-a-day world felt far away. I had spend every hour of the last week with my growing daughter and wife. I had gathered wild plants every day, taken long woodsy forays finding fiddleheads, wild leeks, and hawthornes. I was tired, but my whole body felt light anyway. I imagined what a life like this would be like.

I still can't see how to feed myself exclusively off the wild. But these starchy roots made me feel a little closer. Here was something that promised real caloric value. I've eaten so many tasty greens. But, they've been just that--greens. Not something that could keep a family alive for months on end. If there were a giant swamp to camp by like some of the ones over by Keene, maybe one could survive off of a stew thickened the starch here. I feel like I am learning myself closer to my own emancipation from civilization, one plant at a time.

How do cattails taste? They taste like freedom.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Score--21 down; 79 to go

Well, we seem to be on track to meet our goal of 100 wild edibles this year. Wow does it keep us busy! It's a lot of work to keep track of so many plants, where they are on the landscape, and when they are coming into their edible stage. We haven't missed any plants yet, but red tide will probably mean no shellfish gathering of any kind this year. Next stop is to gather cattail rhizomes for flour. Following is a synopsis of our adventures so far.

Edibles We've Tried with Brief Descriptions and Ooga's Rating

(for a reminder of our scale see our entry at


  1. pine needle tea (Pinus strobus)—more of a tonic than a tea; recommended for those with scurvy—2
  2. eastern hemlock tea (Tsuga canadensis)—another scurvy remedy, but even less palatable than pine—2
  3. black birch tea (Betula lenta)—pleasant wintergreen flavor—3
  4. maple syrup (Acer saccharum)—fit for the gods—5
  5. black birch syrup (Betula lenta)—interesting; probably an acquired taste; lots of work—3


  1. dandelion greens (Taraxacum officinalle)—bitter greens that must be carefully prepared to be good; don’t judge wild edibles by this green—2
  2. orpine greens (Sedum purpureum)—mild and tender; reminds us of Boston lettuce—4
  3. day lily greens (Hemerocallis fulva)—a staple salad green when tender—4
  4. violet flower jelly (Viola papilionacea)—fun; the wild edible to show off to your grandmother--4
  5. garlic mustard greens (Alliaria officinalis)—yes they are distantly reminiscent of garlic; no that does not make them tasty (at least not in our hands)—2
  6. stinging nettle greens (Uritica dioica)—uber-healthy superfood that also taste great; their bark is far worse than their bite; skip your supplements today and eat these greens—4
  7. Canada mayflower greens (Maianthemum canadese)—a tasty abundant green that somehow escaped the wild food literature; we’ve never seen it written up in a guide, but it in our salads every year—3
  8. wild onion greens (Allium vineale or A. canadese)—strong flavored herb; good for cooking but not a choice salad green—3
  9. wild leek greens and bulbs (Allium tricoccum)—here’s another reason for living—5
  10. ostrich fern fiddleheads (Pteritis pensylvanica) —otherworldly, wonderful texture, reminiscent of asparagus—5
  11. Japanese knotweed shoots (Polygonum cuspidatum)—supposedly edible; would love to have a reason to harvest more of this pesty invasive, but have not yet found a way to stomach more than a serving or two—1
  12. trailing arbutus flowers (Epigaea rapens)—sweet, fragrant, beautiful; please gather gently—5
  13. spring beauty roots and greens (Claytonia virginica)—tiny little tubers are one of the best-tasting root vegetables I’ve ever had; alas their small size and rarity; harvesting feels like killing a songbird for its meat; is it worth extinguishing that spark of life for such a small morsel, however sweet?—4
  14. trout lilly roots and greens (Erythronium americanum)—ditto—4
  15. wintergreen berries (Gaultheria procumbens)—you’d never survive off of these delectable little treasures, but I still never pass up eating one—5
  16. partridgeberries (Mitchella repens)—beautiful but bland; a garnish—3

Birch Syrup--Finally Done

Ooga grew up on Aunt Jemima. For most of her childhood, she didn't put any syrup on her pancakes at all. Eating and cooking with syrup is something that she has grown into. So, today, when we finally tasted our birch syrup on a breakfast of French toast, Ooga wasn't sure if she liked the flavor or not. Maybe it was something she would have to grow into as well.

Earlier this week we finally took all the jars of 'mostly syrup' out of the fridge, combined them, and boiled them down. We used the spatula test to tell if the syrup was done since we didn't have a float to measure the specific gravity. We've never used this test before, and it seems we missed the mark a little. Our syrup, although sweet, is not as thick as a syrup should be.

Reviews: The syrup is very mild in flavor, much milder than maple syrup. It is also very mildly astringent--I know that sounds unappetizing, but it's not unpleasant at all. Ooga describes the flavor as woodsy. It reminds me of a flavor that I wouldn't expect to be sweet. But it's not as sweet-tasting as maple syrup is anyway. I enjoyed it smothering my breakfast, and we'll have no problem finishing it, but I feel we haven't quite perfected our birch sugaring yet. (No wintergreen flavor at all. Several friends had asked. I suspect that the molecules that give this flavor to the twigs and tea are too fragile to survive all that boiling intact.)

Both Laura and I give this one a 3--palatable.

Some advice for next time:

  1. Boil one pot at a time.--At first we had just kept adding sap to one pot, constantly diluting the concentrated sap. This method seems to darken the syrup and impact the flavor somewhat.
  2. Wait for real syrup.--We stopped too early, thinking that the sheets that we're supposed to see falling off the end of our spatula had come. This is going to be tricky to get just right. Boil too long and you've scalded the fruits of all your hard work.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Hunter Safety--Why Hunt?

I was vegetarian for over a decade. Before the weekend of April 10-11, I had handled a firearm only once. (It was at a Boy Scout camp when I was 12 years old.) Wildlife is a passion of mine. I support reintroduction of wolves to New England. I believe that there should be an almost complete moratorium on commercial fishing. I even volunteer as a salamander crossing guard during the early spring to help the cute little wrigglers make it to their vernal pools without getting squished by automobiles. So why would a tree-hugging, bleeding-heart like me show up on a chilly Saturday afternoon in spring with a dozen eight-year-olds, their dads and grandpas to pass guns around and talk about how best to shoot Bambi?

Truth be told, I've never had a philosophical or ethical argument against hunting. Humans have eaten other animals since before we were even human. Despite what the local PETA chapter told me, the preponderance of evidence suggests that our species evolved as enthusiastic omnivores. Animal life, by its definition, is required to feed on other life, and for hundreds of millions of years we, animals, have killed in order live. I cannot claim that hunting is wrong without indemnifying my fellow animals. I see little reasoning behind the idea that taking the life of a rabbit or deer is fundamentally different, in moral terms, from digging up and eating the roots of a wild leek or parsnip. All these creatures are miracles. They are all composed of cells wondrously working away at the chemical reactions that sustain them. They share our common ancestry in the great family of life. In a very real sense they are our brothers and sisters.

So perhaps the real question I should answer then is, "Why vegetarian?" I refused to eat meat for two reasons. First, I believed that a vegetarian diet was gentler on the ecosystem than an omnivorous one. Second, I had never actually killed an animal myself.

My first reason I now believe to be well-intentioned, but flawed. Yes, a given amount of ground can produce more calories of corn than it can of cow, but it does this at great expense. The grains that civilization is built upon (corn, wheat, soy), are hard on our land. The methods we most often use to grow them are a far greater environmental atrocity than taking the life of a single deer. The Michael Pollan set have made this case far better than I can here. Suffice it say that I now believe that a compassionately raised or wild creature who is killed skillfully and with gratitude here in my town is kinder, better, more sustainable than buying a package of (even organic) tofu that was raised in California on an industrial farm.

My second reason, that I had never actually killed a (vertebrate) animal myself, grew from my desire to viscerally understand my own role in the drama of life. Indeed, this is one of the major goals for the foraging family project. I do not want to move through my life as a spectator. I do not want my food sugar-coated, literally or figuratively. I'd never figured out a way to connect with the lively creature that had be butchered and Styrofoam wrapped in my supermarket. Without that connection, how can we feel the gratitude that we should.

Several summers ago, I was present as a friend of mine slit the throat of a sheep. We had not eaten in days, and I was profoundly hungry. My hand was on the sheep's ribs, and I was privileged to feel the warmth and life of this animal fade. I helped to pull its skin off like a jacket. I cleaned out its entrails. I cut and cooked and ate its organs. We ate every part of that animal that we could. That moment of death was profound and unnerving, as it should be. If there ever comes a time when it is not, I know that it is time to stop taking animal life.

My real question is, "Why have so many of us lost this sense of reverence when taking the life of a plant?" They are creatures, same as us. They are fragile and beautiful like us. A species of plant is just as irreplaceable once it is gone as an animal. Plants have the same impulse to live and pass on their genetic heritage. Who can help but admire the dandelion reaching out through a concrete sidewalk to unfurl its blossom of sunshine?

I do not know that I will every hunt, but I would be proud to if I did. To step out of the illusion that we can eat without causing suffering and death is hard. I think of the Buddha's first Noble Truth: Life is full of suffering. It is inescapable. I would rather live in the truth than in comfort.

Recipe Rating

Ooga and I have decided to rate all recipes posted on a 1 to 5 scale to help you decide whether to try one of the dishes we have profiled. Since all tastes differ, don't let a poor rating stop you from trying a dish out yourself.

The Scale
  1. = Inedible--could not finish it
  2. = Edible--had no problem finishing it, but wouldn't make it again
  3. = Palatable--compares comparably with a benchmark processed everyday meal (Annie's Macaroni and Cheese)
  4. = Good--will be disappointed if we don't eat it again next year
  5. = Wow--this is a dish we would use to introduce neophytes to the wonders of eating wild
Look for our ratings in future posts.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Violet Jelly

Last week, baby Yub Yub and I went to visit my sister and her new baby in suburban Connecticut. Her yard was carpeted with violets! Just what I’d been looking for. Both the leaves and the flowers of the violet are edible and their mellow, mild flavor makes them quite palatable. Most people add them to salads—when you buy edible flowers in the supermarket, they usually include violets. But I wanted lots and lots of violets because for some time I’ve wanted to make violet jelly.

I love making jam. There is something so satisfying to me about making a yummy food, canning it, and giving it away as a gift. I think I love that I can make something people would spend good money on!

So, my sister’s niece and nephew, the baby, and I set out to collect as many violets as we could. In 15 minutes, the kids were done, but they had already collected over a cup of violet flowers. I collected the rest slowly while watching the kids play in the yard.

Even if you aren’t a jam maker, violet jelly was easy to make and it is so pretty. There are many recipes out on the web and we used the one posted on . My favorite part of the process was adding the lemon juice to the violet water. It instantly turned color from dark blue to brilliant, well, violet!

The resulting jam is very sweet, delicately flavored, and delicious. It will make a really fun gift!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

An Edible Feast Featuring: Fiddle Heads (#11), Garlic Mustard (#12), Day LIly (#7), and Canada Mayflower (#13)

We are having trouble keeping up with the early spring offerings. Everything is ahead of schedule.

This Sunday, we trekked down to the flood grounds by the Connecticut and found fiddleheads which last year didn't poke their heads up for another two weeks! Fiddleheads are the first opening of a fern and some people compare them to asparagus. They are one of the few wild edibles (other than berries) that are highly sought after. We feel strongly about collecting them carefully and have tried to scout out places where others are not collecting. If you collect all the fiddle heads on a given plant, no leaves will sprout on the fern, and it will die--no fiddle heads next year. We try to take no more than two heads per plant. We collect them when they are between 3 and 6 inches tall.

I made a fantastic Asian themed dinner centered around this choicest of spring delights: a beef (grass fed, free range, heritage breed, raised by a friend), fiddle head, and garlic mustard stir fry with a day lily, Canada mayflower, orange salad. We loved this meal, though we would not use the garlic mustard in it again, it was much too bitter for us.

Wild Edible Number 10: Stinging Nettles

Last year, we discovered we had copious amounts of stinging nettle growing in our yard. Stinging nettle is a common plant and delicious edible. It is so named because if you brush the tender parts of your skin against the plant, a toxin is released that causes a stinging sensation not unlike that of fire ants. The sting's painfullness is dependent upon the plant. The plants around us aren't so bad and if you pick them with the tough pads of your fingers, you can't even feel it. We have heard reports of much more powerful nettles, however. Some people choose to pick the plants with gloves on, but this can be cumbersome.

The sting is entirely destroyed by drying thoroughly or cooking for even the briefest period of time. The plant, when cooked, is like mild spinach. Last year I made quiche with it. My friend Rebecca turns it into a pesto. And this year, I made cream of stinging nettle soup which baby Yub Yub scarfed down! The pureed soup consisted of chicken stock (I make my own from locally raised free range birds), onions, potatoes, garlic, stinging nettle, salt and pepper. It is simple and reminded me of the first course served before dinner on my trip to Germany and Austia when I was a teenager. The soup is finished with a dash of cream. This is a recipe for company.

Dangerous edibles

In our relationship Thag has always been the more cautious one. I have a tendency to speak without thinking, cross without looking, and stand too close to the edge. The baby shows every sign of being even more of a risk taker than her mama. This discrepancy between our personalities has become evident in our foraging quest. When faced with a plant he is relatively sure of, Thag will take the time to key it our precisely before adding it to our menu. I look it up in the index, find the photo, compare real life plant to photograph, and take a bite. Since I am still breastfeeding (I don't want to poison her) and also trying to set a safe example for my offspring, I am attempting to take a step back.

The other day, Thag collected some Japanese knotweed, a very invasive edible. While collecting, his knife brushed against something in the carrot family. While some members of this family (ie. the carrot!) are delicious and nutritious, others (water hemlock) are deadly to the taste. He was fairly certain that what he touched was not the Socrates killing hemlock, he spent the better part of an hour making sure. After this adventure, we committed to practice the foragers safety protocal--designed to fend off allergic reactions as well as trips to the emergency room.

First identify the plant carefully by fully keying it out. Second touch it to your tongue. Wait several hours. Third, take a bite, chew, and spit it out. Wait several hours. Fourth, take a bite, swallow, and wait a day. Fifth, add it to your repetoire. I will have to work on my patience.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Wild Edible # 9: Leeks: A Recipe

Rice with Wild Leeks and Hazelnuts

A great side dish for fish or chicken or as a stuffing for peppers, tomatoes, or Cornish Game Hens.


2 cups cooked brown rice
1 cups cooked wild rice
Large bunch of leeks, cleaned--white bulbs and green stems chopped, leaves sliced
1/2 cup hazelnuts
salt and pepper
feta cheese, optional

Melt as much butter as desired (we love butter!). Stir fry leek bulbs and greens until whites translucent (like onions). Add hazelnuts and cook a minute or two more until toasted. Add leek greens until wilted. Add rice. Salt and pepper to taste. Heat through. Mix in feta if desired.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Wild Leeks

Every year, we go to a sacred spot in the woods nearby where we harvest wild leeks. This is one of those places you read about in books--where the foraging is easy and plentiful. It is one of the few places we have foraged where we aren't overly nervous about our impact on the land.

Spring has arrived early this year. Everything is about two weeks ahead of schedule (what a good year for our adventure!), so we decided to trek out to the leek field. Sure enough we were greeted by our amazing carpet of wild leeks. I have never been more upset to forget my camera. (The posted picture is from last year.) It was 82 degrees. Baby Yub Yub and I were in sundresses. She and her papa walked barefoot among the spring ephemerals. It was idylic.

We harvested just enough leeks for three meals. We carefully found a spot that was thick with plants, dug down deep to get the roots (the white rooty flesh is the most flavorful) with a garden trowel, and tamped the earth carefully back into place. The baby loved this adventure and did her own digging with a stick.

The foraging is going to get heavy fast. During our woodsy ramble we found spring beauties, Canada mayflower, and violets all ready for harvest. Thank goodness Thag's spring break is soon. We are going to be busy.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Wild Onion and Dandelion Bruschetta: Edibles #7 and #8

Culinary Masterpiece

Recovery from the-cold-that-will-not-end was expedited by gathering dandelion greens from the roadside. With leftover wild onions from Connecticut, they became a wild onion and dandelion bruschetta. So good that we had trouble waiting to photograph our handiwork.

Wild onion and dandelion bruschetta
Serves 2
• 1 tbsp. butter
• 2 cloves garlic
• 1 ½ - 2 cups fresh dandelion greens (chopped)
• ½ cup wild onion greens (finely chopped)
• 1 small red bell pepper (chopped)
• salt to taste
• 1 small tomato
• 2 slices Italian style white bread

Brown pressed garlic in butter over medium heat. Add dandelion, onion greens, stirring for about 5 minutes. Add 1 tsp of water every so often to speed wilting. Add red bell peppers and salt generously. Cook for 3-5 minutes more or until tender. Served over toasted bread and sliced, fresh tomatoes.

It’s a shame that the bitter dandelion is often the first edible wild plant that people eat. It took me a long time to learn to prepare dandelions well. Check out John Kallas’s supurb essay on dandelions if you’ve ever tasted a dandelion and wondered why everyone was getting so excited.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Early Greens--A Foraging Family Easter


Holy cow! I have been sick as a dog for over a week now. This weekend's unseasonably warm weather found me lethargic, and our plans for an Easter weekend of foraging in sunny Connecticut got pared down. Instead of picking greens, I found myself reading Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21st Century Forager in the hammock in my mother's garden. Langdon Clark, the author, is a Northwest Coast forager who really goes to town on the fish and shellfish of the Puget Sound area. He has re-inspired me to think about fishing as a foraging activity despite the fact that most local freshwater fish will start a Geiger counter ticking out the time to Flight of the Bumblebee. (Okay, that's unearned hyperbole. Their full of heavy metals not radiation.) Check out Langdon Clark's blog at <>.

As the weekend wore on, my viral-induced fog began to clear. Laura would drive the windy suburban road of Southington, CT, the town where we grew up, and I would botanize the weeds growing on the roadside at 30 mph. I didn't have enough energy to go pick skunk cabbage in the ravine, but we gathered enough wild onions (Allium spp.) and day lily (Hemerocallis fulva) greens to add some variety to the salad with Easter dinner and as seasoning for the Cornish game hen we cooked up.

Friday, April 2, 2010

First Forage of Spring

This Saturday, March 27, we went on our first foraging trip. Yub-yub conveniently fell asleep on our ride down to the boat launch into the Connecticut River. The floodplains were still flooded, and only a few rosettes were uncoiling. The trees down by the river were not the trees I know in the uplands, and I found myself struggling to identify them by bark. Gill-over-the-ground (Glechoma hederacea) was blooming, our first bloom of spring, a tiny but rugged thing. This little plant is ostensibly edible, but we’ve tried a tea of its leaves in college. We barely tolerated its bitter flavor. We know where to find it if we become desperate for a few edibles to complete our list of 100, but we’ll hold off for now.

After our first stop we headed south to another riverside spot. There was less greenery growing there than upstream, but we did find a dark green rosette of Winter Cress (Barbarea vulgaris), an edible plant we’d never tried before. We searched for more, but that one was all we found. We decided to split one leaf between us, thinking that that loss of a single leaf would do the plant no harm. That one taste was all we needed. We spat out the bitter leaf after the merest bite. Our Peterson field guide says, “As the weather warms up, the leaves start to become bitter.” Had the few warm days we’d had that week been enough to turn the plant? They certainly weren’t “excellent” as he extols about the early leaves.

This trip helped us to realize a few things.

1. Moving into a new habitat means lots of new plants. If you think you know all the plants around, go to a place that is wetter, drier, rockier, or richer than you’re used to. You’ll find all kinds of new mysteries.
2. You need to know plants by all their parts. I love my field guides, but they are only a sure shot when plants are flowering. The trouble is that many edibles are not gathered during the bloom. I know of no other way to be certain about identifying a shoot or rosette than to have watched the whole life cycle of a plant the previous year. I don’t do this intentionally, but I’m always checking out mystery plants when I walk in the woods. Over time, I’ve learned many stalks and leaves almost unconsciously. Still, there are so many plants. There are thousands. I wonder how many good meals that I pass by because I can't identify them without a flower.

How to Make the Syrup—What We’ve Learned

There’s been so much written about maple sugaring, and we are such novices, that I am loathe to share what we’ve learned. I fear that whatever we write will be redundant. Still, there may be something to learn from our little operation. With that hope, I offer the following:

1. Gathering: (For our experiences with tapping, please see our entry for Sunday, February 28, 2010, Maple Tapping for Syrup—Wild Edible #4.) The hardest work in our sugaring operation is getting the sap from the trees to the evaporator where we’ll boil it. The buckets that hang on the trees can be lifted off of the tap and their contents can be poured into plastic 5-gallon bucket to carry. These buckets have been carefully labeled ‘SAP ONLY’ so that they are not used to carry yucky stuff (like Carl’s biodeisel) that may taint our sweet stuff. We throw out any frozen sap. Carl and Abe say that a negligible amount of sugar is frozen, so leaving the ice means less boiling.
2. Hauling: It’s nice to carry two buckets at once for balance. I’ve found hauling buckets by hand to be more comfortable than using an old wooden yoke. This year we tried hauling buckets with a sled, but the sap sloshed about too much. We retired the sled for fear that we’d end up spilling our precious cargo. The big commercial operations and even some smaller operation use a flexible plastic tubing to bring the sap to a central location. It’s a lot less work, but they’re kind of ugly.
3. Storing: We only boil on weekends, so we store our sap in a big 40-50 gallon plastic barrel which we bury in a snowbank so that it stays cold and does not spoil. That was hard this year since it has been so warm. Carl diligently shoveled his dwindling snowbanks around the barrels as things melted. Carl has fitted the tops of these with a round mesh filter. We pour the sap from our 5-gallon buckets through this filter to strain out any debris.
4. The Evaporator: The fire is built in a cinder-block enclosure called the arch. Who knows how it got that name? Our arch has a swinging metal door that is wonderfully warm to stand near on cold March days. The blocks are stacked and held in place with rebar. The evaporating pan is a large metal pan that fits snuggly on top of the arch. The space between is sealed with insulating rope and some sand. There are still some smoky cracks between the stones, so I plan to help Abe rebuild the arch with some mortar this summer to improve the seal. Carl put a bigger chimney on this year for a better draft. The pan is divided into three compartments, each connected to the next by a small hole. Sap is poured into one end and as you move from compartment to compartment, the concentration increases. At the end of the line is a spigot to draw the most concentrated sap. We don’t take the sap all the way to syrup in this big pan. It could easily burn.
5. Boiling: This year, we burned scrap wood that Carl picked up from a nearby demolition project. We build a fire near the front of the arch so that the fuel gets lots of oxygen. Carl and Abe are sticklers for a neat fire and often check to make sure that the smoke coming from the chimney is nearly invisible. If it starts to get black and sooty they “tsk-tsk” and stop feeding the fire. The best way to keep the fire burning cleanly is to feed it small amounts of fuel frequently. We’ll typically boil all the sap we’ve gathered that week in one day. It’s ready when it tastes sweet (and believe me, we taste often!) and looks dark, but before it starts to get noticeably more viscous. Foam from the sap can start to fill the pan, so we lift it off with a wide scoop. We also quickly dip the tip of a stick of butter in and out of each compartment. “Fat fights foam,” so the old saying goes.
6. Finishing: The concentrated sap is not yet syrup. It has to be boiled still further. We do this in a stainless steel pot over a large outdoor propane stove. This is watched fastidiously as it approaches the right thickness so that it doesn’t go past syrup into sugar. (Though some people want it that way.) Carl has a nifty little weighted glass float that fits inside a cup that he got at Bascom’s . The float is graduated so that you can measure the specific gravity (density) of the syrup. When the float sinks to the right depth in the liquid, it has officially become syrup and is ready for canning.
7. Canning: I was surprised to find a cloudy precipitate in both the maple and the birch syrup that we’ve boiled. It’s called sugar sand by those in the know. I’m not sure if it is the result of chemical changes in the syrup or simply trace minerals that crystallize as the solution is concentrated. Carl and Abe filter it out. This is sticky and some syrup in inevitably wasted. We wondered this year if it could be decanted instead. After filtering, we pour the syrup into one of those coffee servers that you see at staff meetings everywhere with the spigot that can hang off of the end of the table. This way we can pour the hot syrup into jars for canning. This is much easier than canning vegetables or even jams. The sugar content of syrup is so high that bacteria cannot grow in it. The jars don’t even need to be sterilized. We just fill them under the spigot of the coffee server, twist the cap on, and turn them upside down so that the heated syrup will kill any lingering critters on the lids. We use a combination of mason jars and recycled glass jars that have re-sealing lids. Enjoying: Our first batch of syrup this year was the lightest I’ve seen us produce. Who knows what factors influence the color? Most folks will pay more for the lighter stuff. Me? I prefer the dark. Lightest to darkest the commercial grades are: grade A fancy, grade A medium amber, grade A dark amber, and grade B.

Birch Syrup or Tree Waa-Waa—Our Story

Baby Yub-Yub has taken a keen interest in our daily trips out to the two birches that we’ve tapped. She grabs the big green 5-gallon buckets we use to haul the sap and carries it around asking, “Tree waa-waa?” Tree water? As soon as we pour off a bucket of sap, she bends down and sloshes her hands in the cold, clear liquid. We boil a little more down each day on our range. It makes the house damp even with the oven vent fan blowing. The windows fog up, and the kitchen stays nice and warm.

One night, I glanced over to see what looked like a sudden increase in steam coming out of our pot . . . Actually, it’s our housemate, Tifin’s, pot. Something smelled funny . . . Oh, no. We jumped up, quickly turned off the gas, and ran outside with the smoking pot held between two oven mitts and set it in one of the few remaining snowbanks, despairing that we’d have to buy our housmate a new pot. (Sorry, Tifin.) Fortunately, the pot was scraped clean the next day, and we, chastened by the experience, now watch our sap more closely. (P.S. Tifin said not to sweat it. She got the pot at T.J. Max.)

Maple Sugaring—For the Whole Family

Last weekend (20 March 2010) my mother, father, and grandmother came to visit. Since we had sap to boil, we all drove up Putney Mountain to the sugar shack. It was fun to show off the process to my family who, despite having lived in New England nearly all their lives, has never seen the whole process up close. While one batch was in the big evaporating pan, we had last weeks sap finishing in a pot over a propane stove. We took a stroll down the softening dirt roads to a view out to Mount Monadnock and Baby Yub-Yub walked deep into every mud puddle she could find. Everyone got a jar to take home. A day of sweetness—literal and figurative.