I have always loved trees. Not particularly consciously or even attentively, when I was growing up, but always aware of their presence and place in my life – comforting, reassuring, timeless. The Willow trees of my South African childhood, whose long drooping branches we would hold onto and twirl around tightly and then unravel until we were dizzy. Acacia trees, we sat under on broiling Sunday afternoons in Pretoria visiting tannie (Auntie) Nora - one of its long thorns once jabbing into my head. The Sycamore tree in my school playground, whose dried seedpods we would toss up in the air and watch twizzle down like tiny helicopter blades. Bluegums, their scent strongest after summer rainfall, freshening the air with eucalyptus.
In Halifax, the trees we planted when we first moved into our house have been physical markers of time and growth. Much like the notches on the doorframe of my son’s bedroom, we have measured his age and height, year after year, so too are the Juniper trees that flank the pathway to our front door. The tiny Hemlock saplings we planted ten years ago, their growth so imperceptible from day to day, but all of a sudden seem to stand tall and towering, casting long shadows down our driveway.
Now, perhaps because I’m older and we live in a house surrounded by a forest, I am more conscious of the presence of the trees. They are the strongest markers of a seasonal shift. The giant maples that have stood, grey, bare and lifeless since last November are finally waking up, their sap already pumping through their limbs.
It’s a balmy 4 degrees, the sun is shining and the sky is a pale, washed blue for the first time in months. Arms loaded with buckets, lids, spiles (taps) and drill – suspiciously followed by my cat Harry – I am determined to setup a mini sugar shack. This is the first season of tapping maple trees for sap. A combination of a fair weather, motivation on hearing about a friend successfully tap his trees, a successful Home Hardware run and a strong desire to be outside have all culminated in this years first tap.
Ten taps in total, the procedure is all quite simple. Drill, tap in spiles, hang bucket, wait patiently. All maple trees will produce sap, in varying quantities depending on the tree and the weather. We have red maples, not the ideal sugar maples, but the sap will still flow, just with less sugar content, a slightly darker syrup once boiled and a little more vanilla flavour. Sap flows when daytime temperatures rise above freezing (32 degrees Fahrenheit / 0 Celsius) and night time temperatures fall below freezing. The rising temperature creates pressure in the tree generating the miracle of sap flow.
The thrill of watching the sap drip slowly (1-2 drops per second, I counted) into the bucket hanging from the spiles, is the ultimate in slow food. The sap looks and tastes pretty much like water, but containing all the magic super food ingredients, rumoured to cure all ills if sipped as is. I sip and toast the tree gods – my cat still not convinced. The sap will be boiled away to almost nothing to produce syrup. A Sunday of collecting sap and boiling it down, produced just enough for the cup I needed for this recipe. I realise that this may not turn into a thriving sugar shack business, and as pointed out by my son, it is clearly quicker and cheaper to run down to the grocery store and just buy a bottle, but that's not what this is. It's a labour of love.
The giant maples that shade our deck with their canopy of green in the summer, tint our house pink when their leaves turn crimson in the fall, give us hope when their tiny red buds burst in the spring, now provide amber sustenance when the forest floor is still carpeted in snow. They have once again lived up to their ancient symbolism of generosity, balance, promise and practicality.
Maple Syrup Cake
Yield: 9" inch cake (8 slices)
3/4 cup maple syrup
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 cup almond flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
pinch of salt
1/2 cup pecans
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F; grease and flour a 9 inch cake tin.
2. In a small saucepan over a medium heat, bring the maple syrup almost to a boil.
3. Cream together butter, sugar and egg.
4. Combine and add milk, flour,baking powder and salt.
5. Pour batter into cake pan and sprinkle pecans on top
6. Bake for 20-30 minutes - serve warm with whipped cream