Sat, 23 Feb 2013 18:21:42 EST
A Sweet Springtime Flavor
By Tom Lounsbury
As I walked along the gravel road lined with parked cars, I immediately noticed the brisk morning air was lightly scented with a blend of wood smoke and the earthy, sweet smell of boiling maple sap. There was also the sound of a myriad of various bird songs blending uniquely with the inquiring and excited voices of children. Even from the roadside, I could easily see that the ancient sugar maple trees were adorned with either plastic tubing or metal sap buckets. It was maple syrup time once again in the Battel family’s sugar bush located near Cass City, only with a new twist.
On this special day, Battel family members were hosting home school children and their parents to give a firsthand view of how maple syrup is made, from the tree sap to the finished, very sweet product. This event was the brainchild of Bob and Sue Battel who are the 5th generation to take part in the family operated maple syrup business. Sue also home schools their two daughters Addi, age 6, and Dori age 3. Thanks to the internet, the word got out and around 200 home school children and 100 parents paid the Battel Sugarbush a visit to get an actual taste, so to speak, as to how maple syrup is made (to view their website go to www.battlesyrup.weebly.com ). One of the people visiting that day came all the way from Texas.
There were 8 stations in all explaining how maple syrup is made. This started with Bob Battel at station one explaining the biology involved with sugar maple trees and sap production. The month of March represents the key month for maple syrup production in Michigan. What is required for top sap production are 25 degree nights and 40 degree days. When this occurs, days boiling sap in the sugar shack can be quite long. By the first week of April, the sap run is usually over. When March approaches, the Battel family eagerly awaits for the sap to flow, but they will readily admit they are glad when April arrives, and the flow ends.
Just a few years ago, Mark Battel, who is 4th generation in the family business, went to using plastic tubing to transfer sap directly from the trees to the holding tank, to eliminate a lot of labor. It is a system that works, but even so, some trees due to their location in the woods, still require the covered steel sap buckets.
Mark Battel was at station two in the sugar shack explaining the procedure in boiling maple sap down into maple syrup. The sap contains only two percent sugar and it takes about 40 to 45 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup. Sugar sand which is the minerals that feed into the tree through the sap, is what gives the maple syrup its beautiful brown color.
Sue Battel and her two daughters, dressed in pioneer garb, were at station 7. Sue explained the history of making maple syrup, which was developed by Native Americans that struck the trees with tomahawks to get the sap to flow out into birch bark containers. The sap was then boiled in hollowed out logs by adding hot rocks heated in a nearby fire. At this station was also the original iron kettle used by great, great grandfather George Battel to boil sap down into syrup, starting back in 1882. George Battel had purchased the property the year after the Great Fire of 1881 that had beset the Thumb, but had just missed the location of the Battel sugarbush, sparing the sugar maple trees. The fact is, many of the trees there are more than 200 years old and still producing sap each spring. A photo on the sugar shack wall shows George Battel boiling sap in the early 1900’s, and behind him is a maple tree with an unusual cant to it. The rocks he used around the fire have never been moved from the exact site, and not far away is the same tree with that unusual cant, and still producing sap.
Maple trees need to have at least a 10 inch diameter before they can be tapped, with a single steel tap. Larger trees can handle more taps, and many of the trees in the Battel sugarbush have 3 or 4 taps.
At station 8, the visitors had a chance to taste freshly boiled down maple syrup. This I can tell you is an elixir like no other. In pioneer days maple syrup was an important commodity. Cane sugar through trade was hard to come by and expensive, and nobody was growing sugar beets at that time. If you wanted a sweetener, maple syrup and maple sugar were more readily had in these parts. The genuine article can’t be beat on pancakes and waffles, and it is also great on popcorn and ice cream and as an additive in a whole bunch of recipes and in marinades for fish and meat.
When I arrived that morning, the ground was frozen and of course the sap wasn’t running right then. However as the sunny day warmed and the ground underfoot softened, the sap began to flow as the last visitors departed in the afternoon. I found Mark Battel checking the stainless steel holding tank. Sap was steadily flowing in from the trees through the plastic tubing. A Surge vacuum pump, just like that used in milking parlors, plays an important role in the system, but the main pressure for sending the sap to the storage tank comes naturally from the trees.
A flock of geese winged overhead and their distinct calls enhanced this springtime atmosphere. Mark took his foot and brushed back a layer of decayed leaves on the forest floor to show me the first signs of leeks (a wild onion found in the woods) starting to sprout up from the humus rich soil, along with various wildflowers as well. Spring had certainly sprung according to the local fauna and flora, and very soon the annual maple sap run would be over.
There is one thing for certain about working in a sugarbush, you get to witness spring coming into being firsthand, and it is rather a pleasant association with nature in general.
I have fond memories of working in a neighbor’s sugarbush when I was in my teens. It was hard work, from drilling holes into the maple trees with a hand drill, and hammering in metal taps and hanging on the metal sap buckets. This was followed by harvesting sap by dumping the sap buckets into a pair of bigger 5 gallon buckets, and carrying all this full to the brim over rough, slippery ground to a holding tank on wheels and towed by a tractor.
I can remember at day’s end and after the sun had disappeared, heading to the sugar shack where my neighbor was boiling sap. It was an eerie atmosphere of steam highlighted by the crackling red glow from the wood-stoked fire, and the hissing yellow glow from a Coleman gas lantern. The moist heat quickly thawed out cold fingers and toes, and the boiling sap emitted a beautiful aroma. If the batch of maple syrup was almost done my neighbor would pour some into a mug and hand it to me to savor and drink.
It is a very special springtime flavor and a moment in time that I will remember until my dying day.
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