Author: foragedlove

environmentally-friendly christmas tree

There are three good things about winter pruning deciduous trees: the leaves have fallen and it’s easy to see the shape of your trees and shrubs; it will promote faster regrowth in the spring; and you get to make a stunning, unique holiday tree!

If you haven’t got trees in need of a quick cut, maybe you have friends with trees (FWT)…

The staghorn sumac trees in our yard carry beautiful burgundy seed tips on upper branches. I mix them up with whatever needs a prune from year to year. The stark beauty and architecture of bare branches can be mesmerizing, and the seeds add a touch of drama.

The tree can be floor to ceiling, or on a table in a plant urn, in whatever shape nature gives you, in whatever space you have. Also, a smaller tree is a perfect project for kids.

You’ll need:

Assortment of deciduous branches
Plant pot or large container for base
Weights or large rocks for bottom of base
Burlap or fabric
Floral foam or styrofoam blocks
12-inch plastic cable ties (local hardwares sell them in packs)

Choose and prune your branches to the height desired.

I use a large wicker basket as my tree stand. I’ve learned the hard way to put my son’s free weights in the bottom (about 50 lbs); a too tall tree can fall over once decorated.

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Lay out your branches and stand upright, starting with the largest, in your plant pot, and surround with floral foam blocks to keep upright. Keep adding branches, stabilizing with foam, and joining lower branches together with cable ties.

When you are satisfied with the fullness of the tree, hide the base with fabric.

Decorate. I don’t use lights because the branches are often not strong enough to support them, but the small battery-operated fairy lights are lovely and light weight. I have a small floor spot light that I shine onto the tree to create shadows on the walls and ceiling.

Snowflake-shaped ornaments make beautiful shadows. Bird ornaments are lovely.

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Of course, this can be a tree for all holidays and seasons: Easter eggs and bird nests; Hanukkah dreidels and coins; or Halloween candy and spiders.

At the end of the season, cut up dry branches for kindling or mulch.

Warm wishes for the holidays,

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“The wonder is that we can see these trees and not wonder more.”

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

 

 

 

Primrose Flower Scones with Redbud Butter

 

It’s finally warm enough to enjoy tea in the garden, and what better to accompany a cuppa than a warm scone topped with a pool of melting homemade sweet butter? Tinged with pink, of course, the hue of love, tenderness and nurturing.

The flower stars align for a week in spring, when the redbuds (Cercis canadensis) are in full flower and the primroses (family Primulaceae) spring from fluorescent green leaves. Our bog is ideal for Candelabra primroses, which grow about three feet high with five to seven whorls per stem. A gift of pink primroses to someone means you cannot live without them, so here’s a treat for my husband, son, and a crumb for Hunter.

Homemade butter is easy enough with one ingredient: the freshest organic cream you can source.

Cream can be whipped in a mixer, as I did above, or run through a food processor, or even shaken in a closed jar. As the cream becomes butter, luscious buttermilk remains at the bottom of the bowl, an essential  fateful ingredient for our scones, as though these two recipes were made for each other. It is important to rinse the butter with cold water after the buttermilk is set aside, to guarantee freshness for several days. I added about 2 tablespoons of buds to the butter from one litre of cream.

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Redbud flowers taste like very young sweet peas, with a gentle crunch. Simply fold the flowers into the freshly made butter with a spatula, and form the butter into a log in plastic wrap before refrigerating.

Gently wash the primrose flowers and let them dry prior to making the scones. So stunningly beautiful, I was sad to coarsely chop them before adding them to the flour mixture. (Any favorite scone recipe will do, as long as it calls for buttermilk.)

It’s best not to over-handle the dough, even when it’s this pretty!

Bake, and then back into the fragrant garden with some tea…enjoy!

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Perhaps followed with a walk to show gratitude to spring.

Alex's garden

 

a circle of love—weave your own

 

Nothing is more symbolic. Throughout history, wreaths have been crowns and decorations. They’ve been used to celebrate the harvest, kings and virgins. Christmas and funerals. The circle stands for infinity and eternity; it is without beginning or end. How wonderful it is to honour our plants in this noble form—and easy!

Almost any pliable long stems can be woven into a wreath. We have lots of wild grape vines in our region that grow along ravine banks and roads and they are a perfect material for wreaths. Ornamental grasses, vinca, or any trailing plant will do, depending on the season.

It is easy to from a circle by hand, but if you want to work with larger, thicker stems, it’s not too difficult to build a frame that will last forever. Easy for me, because Miles and I love Home Depot, and everything is available there, inexpensively, to create your frame. And once you’ve built it, think of the things you can weave. Every season and holiday offers new possibilities.

I left the corkscrew tendrils on the vines because they add interest. Vines are more pliable when fresh, but you can soak them in water before using if you need to store them for a while.

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This is a shopping list for frame materials:

  • 1 square piece of plywood, slightly larger than the diameter of wreath you want to weave
  • 12 6″ screws (I use 1/4 inch here)
  • 12 nuts
  • 24 washers
  • drill

Draw a circle on your wood the size of your desired wreath, using a middle nail, a string (the length go your desired radius) tied to it and a pencil on the other end.

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Drill 12 holes, evenly spaced, and slide screws through the bottom. Bolt into place and your frame is ready to go.

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Wrap your vines into the middle of the circle to the desired thickness of your wreath. Tuck ends in between the vines as you finish and begin with each length. Leave the tendrils to fall where they may. Save some of the most pliable vines for the end and weave them around the wreath to keep it together. After you pull the wreath from the frame, you may want to wrap around it a few more times to give it extra stability.

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Don’t worry too much about neatness; the beauty of this type of wreath is its rustic appearance. I decorated mine with some cotton ribbon and old cow bells I found at a flea market.

This wreath is inexpensive, weatherproof and offers a great craft to do with kids. They can have fun decorating it with flowers, grasses, evergreen boughs or even sumac cones.

The vine wreath may also be made into a gorgeous holiday centrepiece or Advent wreath, decorated with evergreen boughs, holly and candles.

Now that the Halloween candy wrappers are swept up, I think it’s okay to hang my wreath on the front door…

gingko nut harvest

 

There are two ways to know you’ve met a gingko tree: you’ve experienced the most elegant leaves in the plant world (no wonder they are used as bookmarks in Japan) or you’ve experienced an incredibly vile odour because you stepped on the fruit. It’s a tree of opposites. And a tree with history. Gingkos are often called living fossils because they’ve been around for millions years and they are not related to any other plant species—they are their own species.

Gingkos have been cultivated in China for about a thousand years and the nuts are considered to have medicinal properties. In the west, leaf extracts are used to make the Gingko biloba that we purchase in health food stores, most often to help memory.

They are planted in cities along streets and in parks simply because they are resilient as well as gorgeous. Cities will often plant male trees because only female trees drop the smelly fruit. But where the fruit is, the pickers are, throughout November and December, hoping to get a fix of memory, history and beauty.

There are two female gingko trees in front of our house that create a yellow rain of leaves this time of year. I treasure them, and although it’s a little bit of work, it’s exciting to collect the fruit. If you are so inclined, it’s best to prepare in advance by gathering your materials:

  • Pail
  • garbage bag
  • lots of disposable gloves
  • disposable plastic take-out food containers
  • colander
  • fry pan with lid

Pick up the fruit, always wearing your gloves. There are properties to the fruit that are similar to poison ivy, so protect yourself throughout out the process. I put the fruit into a pail lined with a garbage bag.

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Let the gingko fruit soak in cold water for a few hours and the pulpy flesh will slide off easily. Discard the few on which it doesn’t. I use disposable take-out containers and put them in the recycling bin when I’m done.

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Still wearing gloves, scrub the nuts in a colander by rubbing them in your hands. They look very similar to pistachio nuts.

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Some people prefer to bake them in the oven on lined cookie sheets. I dry roast them in a pot with a lid (because some of them will pop as they heat up) for about 10 minutes.

Once they are toasted, they are easy to crack. Tap gently with a hammer on a cutting board covered with parchment or waxed paper. There is a thin skin under the shell that should come off easily. It’s important to remove this skin because it may cause allergies in some people. A few may be hard to clean; just discard them.

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What to do with them? They are best enjoyed as a rare and special salty appetizer, especially when found in Central Park:

Read this New York Times Article about how the restaurant Masa serves them.

Prepared this way, they are delicious. They taste like a cross between edamame and chestnut, with a little something strange and undefinable thrown in.

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I’ve read you’re not supposed to eat more than 10 per day because there may be a mild toxicity to the meat of the nuts. A small portion of people may have an allergic reaction. If this is your case, enjoy the beauty from afar or press some leaves—but tread carefully!

sumac lemonade

 

The stag horn sumac is stunning this time of year and I use the branches in floral urns and to make a recyclable Christmas tree (I’ll post how in December).

Until then, I wanted to share a quick recipe for sumac lemonade. We’re only talking about edible sumac here (Rhus glabra or Rhus typhina), the one with fuzzy red upright cones of berries. It’s called lemonade because of its tart citrus-meets-cranberry flavour and the Vitamin C content is high, too.

Avoid poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix); you’ll recognize it because the clusters of hard white berries grow downwards. The good news is that birds and squirrels can eat them without problems.

Pick the cones on a dry sunny day. Much of the flavour comes from a sticky substance on the berries that is washed away in the rain. Purists say not to wash the berries for the same reason—I prefer to shake them out well and give them a rinse under cold water, but it’s up to you.

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I usually place the berries in a clear pitcher so I can enjoy their beauty. Add one litre of cold water per four cones and let the mixture sit for a few hours. Don’t stir or squeeze the berries because this releases extra tannins and results in a more sour drink. Gently shaking the jar will release the flavour; leaving the jar in the sun may speed up the process.

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Strain the lemonade through a colander to remove the berries, and then through a coffee filter to remove the fine hairs that cover the berries. You can sweeten  with honey or maple syrup, but I prefer the tart refreshing lemonade as is, or over ice. This lemonade is a different colour every time I make it, ranging from light yellow to a deep pinkish amber, but the flavour is always delicious.

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GIFT IDEA: If you want to give a friend a gift of foraged tea, arrange some sumac and evergreen leaves (see earlier post on Evergreen Tisane) in a vase with the recipes. It’s a heart-warming way to bring the outdoors in.

smudge sticks: it’s easy to make your own

 

Smudging is a beautiful, spiritual Native American tradition. Bundles of fragrant herbs, grasses and tree branches are burned in a ritual to purify and cleanse a space or a person. Although I am not Native American, I enjoy the peaceful process of gathering, braiding and wrapping the herbs. It is customary to say a small prayer when gathering your plants—ask the plant for permission to use its healing power, and show gratitude by leaving a small token of appreciation, commonly a bit of tobacco. I leave a lock of hair because it’s a gesture from my person. A bit of flour or cornmeal may also be a traditional offering.

Different plants have different meanings and the meanings vary by Tribe or Nation. The most commonly used plants are white sage, cedar and sweetgrass, but many garden herbs can be used. Please make sure, though, that you don’t choose toxic plants or plants that create toxic smoke when burned. (Check under the menu item Urban Foraging 101 for links to lists of toxic plants if you are unsure.) Pick your herbs on a dry and sunny day because moist branches may get mouldy when wrapped. The ideal branch length is 8-12 inches.

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I gathered the above from my garden: cedar (blesses and offers protection and grounding), sage (cleanses negative energy), rosemary(heals and offers remembrance), and thyme (spiritual cleansing in matters of love).

Divide your herbs into bunches for each smudge stick.

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Use a sturdily branched herb as the base and wrap or braid the other branches around it. Cedar burns quickly so it is best kept in the middle. Use the longest branches in the centre and shorter ones on the outside. Use only natural fibre or string; red is traditional, but it’s up to you. Tie the string fairly tightly up to almost the top and back downward, wrapping several times around the bottom of the bundle to create a handle.

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Wrap the finished stick in brown paper to keep the herbs from fading, and hang upside down to dry for a week or two.

When you are ready to use the dried smudge stick, light it with a candle. As it begins to smoke, keep it over a fireproof container at all times. Move the stick to direct the smoke toward whatever is being smudged. In traditional ceremonies, smoke is often fanned with an eagle feather.

To smudge a house, carry the stick and move clockwise around each room, filling corners and blocked areas.

weeds: if you can’t beat them, eat them! (make pesto)

 

Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata):

We’ve got a lot of it. Too much of it, really, so this year I’m enjoying it in as many ways as possible.

Garlic Mustard is found in forests and forest edges. Pick the leaves when they are young from the base of the plant. Or pull the entire root out of the soil and pick off the most tender leaves to control regrowth. Savour the garlic fragrance when you rub a leaf between your fingers!

Garlic Mustard is often considered invasive and undesirable in North America because it interferes with soil health, and we apparently lack the plant-eating insects that control it in Europe. However, in the UK, it is a culinary herb.

My friend Robin was in town before the plants went to flower, so we spent the weekend picking and using the leaves everywhere we could.

The heart-shaped leaves look gorgeous with chives in a frittata.

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For dinner, we grilled fresh fish stuffed with lemon, garlic, fennel leaves and garlic mustard.

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For pesto, I use a standard basil pesto recipe and simply substitute the basil with half mustard garlic leaves and half Italian parsley leaves. There are as many pesto recipes as there are chefs, so feel free to adapt your own. Over the years, this one has become my tried-and-true favourite and it freezes well, too.

Toasting the pine nuts makes a huge difference; toast for about two minutes in a lightly oiled skillet over medium heat, stirring often. Caution: they can quickly go from brown to burnt.

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Garlic Mustard (or Basil) Pesto

  • 2 cups fresh basil leaves, washed and patted dry OR (1 cup each of garlic mustard leaves and flat-leafed parsley leaves)
  • 3 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 1 cup olive oil
  • 1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (or a combination of Parmesan and Romano)
  • 1/2 cup toasted pine nuts
  • salt and pepper to taste

Put leaves, garlic and pine nuts into the bowl of a food processor. Combine at low speed, and with motor running, pour in olive oil in a steady stream.

Pour into a bowl and stir in grated Parmesan. Add salt and pepper to taste. Best used immediately. (on pasta, on grilled chicken, whisked into scrambled eggs, on pizza…)

Pesto can be frozen in an air-tight container for up to 3 months, but make sure to drizzle a little olive oil over the top to prevent freezer burn. I freeze it in small 1-serving glass containers for easy access throughout the year, although ice cube containers work equally well.

Books I Love: 

Foraged Flavor, Tama Matsuoka Wong with Eddy Leroux

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easy, scrumptious maple granola

 

I promise this is my last post about (my obsession with) maple syrup. It’s just that the past winter was relentless, and the cold snowy days had me craving for comfort food. If you want to transport yourself to a cozy Bed and Breakfast in Vermont, here’s how—make this Maple Syrup Granola. The fragrance in your kitchen will take you right there. It won’t last long though, because it’s so delicious, it will disappear, just like the melting snow, into the promise of spring.

I use my favourite ingredients, but change the nuts and seeds to suit you. Just a warning, this recipe has a high proportion of nuts because I love it that way. The oats aren’t the star here!

There are several ways to remove skins from hazelnuts. Most often they are lightly toasted so the skins can be rubbed off, but for this granola recipe, because they will be toasted again with the oats, this method isn’t ideal. A better and easy option is to simply boil 4 cups of water, add 4 tablespoons of baking soda (it will fizz), and boil the hazelnuts for about 4 minutes. Drain them in a colander and rinse with cold water, the skins will literally pop off in your fingers.

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The key to the sweetness is of course, real maple syrup and brown or golden sugar.

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For a special treat, grate your own cinnamon. It is a richer, stronger flavour than the pre-ground stuff. I use my beloved microplane. If you don’t have one, it’s well worth buying. Freshly grated cinnamon on anything, from buttered toast to bananas and yoghurt, will make your day just a little more decadent. And healthy. It’s believed to reduce inflammation and be an anti-oxidant.

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Enjoy, eat healthy, and happy spring!

 

Easy, Scrumptious Maple Granola

  • 4 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
  • 1 cup pecans
  • 1 cup blanched hazelnuts
  • 1/2 cup sliced, blanched almonds
  • 1/2 cup raw sunflower seeds
  • 1/2 cup raw pumpkin seeds
  • 1/2 cup sesame seeds
  • 1/2 cup shredded coconut (sweetened or unsweetened)
  • 1/4 cup light brown sugar (packed)
  • 1 cup pure maple syrup
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 3/4 tsp salt
  • 1 cup raisins or dried fruit (optional)

Preheat the oven to 300˚F (150˚C). Cover two large cookie sheets (with sides) with parchment paper or foil.
Mix together maple syrup, vegetable oil, vanilla extract and salt in small bowl.
Mix the rest of the ingredients (except raisins or dried fruit) together in large bowl and stir in the liquid mixture.
Spread on sheets and bake for 30 minutes until golden brown, stirring occasionally. Stir in raisins or dried fruit.
Store in airtight container for up to two weeks.

the best maple syrup dressing ever

 

I was going to wait until we could pick some young dandelion greens to share this dressing recipe, but I’ve received numerous requests. This recipe comes from a dear family friend, let’s call him G. He left us too soon due to cancer. G shared this recipe during a period when healthy eating was paramount, and he was consuming greens by the bucket. The dressing is perfect coming from him—he was the ideal blend of sweet and savoury. His sense of humour, quick wit and intelligence were irresistible. And the touch of Dijon honours his French roots.

The dressing is excellent with any mixed greens or salad, but don’t stop there. The complex layers of flavour highlight fruit and cheese plates, too. It’s beautiful dotted around figs and persimmons on a cheese and fruit dessert plate.

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A must-have, these inexpensive plastic squeeze bottles allow you to apply the dressing creatively. They come in many sizes and are a dollar or two each—well worth it to allow your plate to become a canvas. If you buy the less expensive ones without caps, like the smaller ones below, simply unscrew the lid, cover the bottle with a piece of plastic wrap, and screw the lid back on before you store in the fridge. By the way, if you want your kids to have fun decorating their pancakes, keep some pure maple syrup in a bottle like this, too.

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G’s jokes and stories keep us laughing today—we remember them all. And his kindness of spirit still touches us. He loved being in the country, surrounded by trees, and I’m pretty sure many of the trees near his cottage were maples; I think he’d be happy that this dressing will be part of many family meals and gatherings. So after the spring tapping, save some maple syrup for it. Until then, store bought syrup will do fine.

Hunter loves cheese plate, witnessed by his Shameless Begging. (Miles is nowhere to be seen; he prefers chocolate cake.)

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The Best Maple Syrup Dressing Ever

  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup maple syrup
  • 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tbsp Dijon mustard
  • 1 tbsp soy sauce
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • freshly ground black pepper to taste

Whisk together until emulsified. Refrigerate.

how to tap your own maple sap for syrup

 

Making the evergreen tisane got me thinking that it’s time to start preparing for the annual sap run. If you are lucky enough to live near some maple trees, tapping for syrup is easy. I’d like to share my list of everything you need to tap for your own syrup; then all that’s left is to find a tree or two. It’s a great activity for kids, one that even my son is willing to leave the Xbox for. It’s a lot about anticipation and waiting, activities that are becoming rare given the immediacy of our technological world. Also, there’s a lot of history and folklore around maple syrup; once you are hooked, it’s worth researching and reading about.

Sugar Maples are the best because their sap has the highest sugar content (3%). They’re recognizable by their symmetrical crown, and they provide the distinctive leaf on the Canadian flag. We’re lucky enough to have two in our yard, but I wouldn’t be shy to ask friends about their trees; not many people can say no to pancakes smothered in fresh maple syrup. Other maples will work (Black Maple, Red Maple, Silver Maple, Ash Leaf Maple/Box Elder) but their sap has less sugar concentration so more boiling is required.  How to Identify a Sugar Maple

If you order your supplies in advance, you’ll be ready for when the ideal conditions strike in your area. Sap usually runs for about a two-week period in late winter. Temperatures need to be below freezing at night, and above freezing during the day up to about +7C˚. It’s exciting to go out and check the buckets every day. After several years of tapping, my son and I are still thrilled at the first run, often called the ‘Robin’s Run’. It’s best to boil sap when it is fresh, but if you need to save it for a few days, keep it refrigerated.

My son was delighted to buy a hammer drill at Home Depot. They’re about $50 if you don’t need cordless; it’s all a teenaged boy could hope for—big, heavy and powerful. I like that it comes in its own fancy carrying case. You’ll need to invest in a 7/16″ titanium drill bit, a little pricey at almost $20, but it’s necessary to cut through the hard wood.

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Even more exciting is shopping for buckets, lids, spiles (spouts) and bottles. I use an excellent Canadian supplier and am able to order everything online; they ship to the US and internationally. http://atkinsonmaple.com  The bottles shapes are adorable, and make great gifts if you are generous enough to share your syrup. My son hoards our syrup for pancakes for him and Hunter, and I use it for salad dressings. (I’ll share the perfect dressing recipe in a future post.)

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It is important to limit taps per tree. Measure the trunk diameter about four feet above the ground. For a diameter of 11-17 inches: use 1 tap; 18-24 inches: 2 taps; +24 inches: 3 taps. This way less than 10% of the tree’s sap is removed, and the health of the tree is protected. Drill the tap hole above a large root, or below a large limb, on the sunny side of the trunk, at a slight upward angle, 2 1/2 inches inward from the outside of the bark. I put masking tape on the drill bit to help my son gauge the depth. Then gently tap in the spile with a hammer, and hang your bucket. A lid is essential because it can be a rainy or snowy time of year.

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The sap looks like water and has a very slight maple flavour. If the sap becomes yellow or cloudy, it’s time to stop tapping. Strain the sap through a reusable filter into a large canning pot, and you’re ready to boil!

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The boiling down requires some time. I use the outdoor gas barbecue. A full pot takes 6 to 8 hours of boiling to get it to the final syrup stage. Boiling inside your house is not an option; the humidity released all day will peel your wallpaper! The sap will slowly darken and thicken. It’s a long day, but exciting nonetheless. I check its viscosity on a metal spoon, when it gently ‘sheets’ off the spoon (coats the spoon) instead of dripping, it’s done. (Or when it reaches a temperature of 7 degrees above boiling point on a candy thermometer.) I change from the canning pot to a smaller pasta pot and bring it inside to the kitchen stove when the syrup starts to darken. This will give you more control—you don’t want to overcook or syrup will crystallize and you’ll have maple sugar. (Not necessarily bad thing; it’s twice as sweet as regular cane sugar. If this happens, pour into a small cup or ramekin.)

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While still hot, and at the “sheeting” consistency, filter the syrup through a funnel lined with cheesecloth or a piece of felt into sterilized jars. Fill to the top, leaving little air, and seal. Store in a cool place and always refrigerate after opening.

When I lived in Quebec, I visited many sugar shacks (cabanas à sucre) where the celebration of the annual tapping is serious fun. They sometimes serve ‘caribou’ (red wine, whisky and maple syrup) which isn’t my favorite, but the eggs, pancakes, sausages and baked beans slathered in syrup more than make up for it. And they know what they are doing—Quebec supplies almost 75% of the world’s maple syrup.

Hunter hoovers up his Sunday pancakes with maple syrup.

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Here’s an easy ‘first-time’ checklist: (let’s assume 2 large trees)

  • Drill + 6/17″ titanium drill bit
  • 6 buckets, with lids (I use 2 gallon ones)
  • 6 hooks
  • 6 spiles (spouts)
  • Felt filter (washable)
  • Large canning pot
  • Outdoor heat source
  • Smaller pasta pot
  • Candy thermometer (if desired)
  • Small funnel
  • Cheesecloth
  • Assorted 250 ml bottles/jars + lids

Books I Love:

61G2m1VTIFL._AA160_Maple Sugar from Sap to Syrup, by Tim Hero

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Au Pied de Cochon Sugar Shack, by Martin Picard