Yesterday was glorious, with a clear blue sky of the kind that seems to have extra depth, somehow, and afternoon temperatures in the fifties. The sickle bar mower is getting reassembled, and the flower beds around the house are raked and clipped and cleared. The boys brought down somewhere in the neighborhood of forty gallons of sap, and we got about another gallon of syrup, making four gallons all told.
Never boiled syrup? Spiles, the little taps you put in the trees, are cheap — about a dollar fifty each, I think – and you can use plastic milk jugs for sap buckets, by cutting a hole in the side of the jug just under the cap. A bucket of this kind is pretty safe from bugs getting in, and won’t collect rain, but has the disadvantage of holding only one gallon of sap, which means you’ll always find it running over when you come to empty it. We usually use food-grade two- or five-gallon buckets, collected from helpful restaurants in the area, and even these are sometimes running over, since we really can’t spare the time to collect sap more than once a day.
Long, long ago we boiled sap in the house, which meant that the indoor atmosphere was about as liquid as it could stick, and we used up a week’s worth of propane per gallon of syrup. Then S-2 built us a large firebox in the back of the house, next to the woodshed, of dry-laid cinder block lined with firebrick, and we bought two large stainless steel pans, about eighteen by twentyeight by eight inches, which fit neatly over the firebox. The pans belonged, before we purchased them, to an amateur mechanic who used them for changing the oil in the succession of vehicles he disembowelled in his garage, but we cleaned them carefully, and they might have been designed especially for sap pans. Add sap, kindle fire, and keep a close eye, because as the sugar becomes concentrated, the boiling point goes up,and by the time your syrup is almost ready, it is just about ready to burn. We usually bring it in the house when it is approaching the syrup stage, and finish it on the stove where we can keep an eye on it.
Syrup is ready when it sheets from the spoon, which means the last few drops to fall from the spoon and back into the pan slide off together like a skin. This point can be difficult to judge, and at one time we determined doneness by means of a thermometer – two hundred seventeen degrees being the point of doneness, if memory serves – but we found that our syrup was then rather thick and overly sweet, and the next year we went back to the sheet method. Good enough is perfect. We pour it hot into mason jars, slap on sterilized lids, tighten the rings, and invert. Five minutes upside down, unless we forget what we’re doing and give them more. Hot sugar syrup is hot enough to kill anything else in the jar, in theory at least, and as the air in the jar cools, it creates a seal with the lid. Nevertheless, sometimes we find a jar of our precious maple syrup with a skin of mold over the top to show that something went wrong. Not catastrophically wrong, however; a fork will lift out the grey mold skin, and the syrup can be boiled and either used, or resealed. The detail-oriented and the determined can pressure can, boiling water bath, or freeze his jars to outwit the mold.