Crisp early morning sunlight filters through the moss on the trees…
I head down the access road between the dining hall and the longhouse. Every 40 to 50 feet there is an opaque 16 litre’s vegetable oil bucket which has been cleansed and re-purposed for this special activity. The tires of our golf cart crunch over the rime of frost on the leaves as I pull up in the middle of the grove to begin collecting. The conditions are text book perfection for harvesting sap. Temperature overnight was down between -3 and -5 degrees Celsius, while day time temperatures have been soaring into the mid to high teens. Sunlight is hitting the bark, stimulating the Sapwood and Phloem layer to start moving sap from the root ball up to the buds to feed the next generation of leaves.
Three of the jugs are about 1/3 to half full while two others have a little amount, perhaps just less than a liter. I grab empty jugs off the back of the cart and head over to the first tree to swap out the jugs. The jugs are recycled vegetable oil jugs, the kind we call “JIB’s”, or Jug in Box, made from light weight translucent plastic. They have an integral handle, a threaded wide aperture lid and are shipped in a cardboard surround for protection, which I have removed. They are perfect for this application! Previously I used 16-liter pails with lids but found that they were awkward to handle, completely opaque and if you have ever worked in a kitchen you will know how hard it can be to obtain them as they are a high demand storage container. The JIB’s however – no one wants. I used to go driving by the white buckets of mystery, you would have to go to each one and give it a shake to see if there was any sap in it, with the JIB’s you can tell if you have sap just by looking at it.
So, I approach the tree and swap the jugs, the jug is connected to the spiel or tap by a length of food grade plastic hosing, the kind you would find in a wine making kit. The tap is made from a rugged black plastic and is snugged into a borehole driven 2 inches into the tree at a shallow upward angle using a 7/16th drill bit and a battery powered drill that I borrowed from maintenance. I pull the hose from the jug and insert it into the clean empty jug I have brought with me, I have pre-drilled all the jugs with a hole located on the inside vertical part of the handle so rain drains away from it. I make sure that the hose is inserted at least 6 to 7 inches into the jug in case of wind or animals tipping it over. The other big benefit to these jugs is they are so light weight that if they fall over the friction from the hose passing through the plastic is enough to keep them attached without popping the spiel out.
Once I have made sure that the jug will survive inspection from a squirrel I read the tag on the tree to get the tree number. All our trees have tags, this tag is a length of masking tape that records the date the tree is tapped, the school group that helped tap it and the number of the tree. I have tapped 20 this year. Tapping Maple trees on site has become an activity that we share with visiting grade 6 students. What started as a cool thing that I wanted to do, has over the past couple of years, developed into some hands on experiential learning session with school kids attending programming on site. Often worked into their forest studies, this lesson has become one of my favorite things to do. Twice a day I will hold a class for a dozen or so students where we talk about how photosynthesis works, where the simple sugars we all need come from, (turns out that everything you eat is some form of converted sunlight) where the Big Leaf Maple lives and how to identify it. We figure out what equipment we need to tap the tree and collect the sap. We talk about the best time to collect that sap and why these times are the best.
What will the raw sap look like coming out of tree?
How fast does it come out?
How much do we need to make a litre of syrup?
We try the raw sap, sap reduced by half, and the syrup to compare color, taste and texture. We talk about what processes are happening to turn sap into syrup. Then we all grab a piece of equipment (I hold the drill bit and separate the battery from the drill) and head out to tap a tree. We go for a walk along the road or down the forest foot path to find a maple. We practice the ability to recognize the identifying characteristics of maples, which can be surprisingly tricky to identify when there is snow on the ground. We then proceed step by step to choose a tree, select where we make a bore hole, then attach the bucket, hose, and spiel together; and finally insert it into the tree. We then pull out a piece of masking tape and record the date, the tree number, and the circumference of the tree. I also ask them to record their school group and color group, then they pick a name for the tree. Some of those are pretty hilarious. This is the tag I am referring to when I collect the jug.
Back to the collecting.
I take out a piece of tape, record the tree number and wrap the tape around the handle of the jug. This is tree #11, a mature maple with a circumference of 5’ 8”. It was tapped by the students of St. Pius, St. Mary’s and Holy Trinity Elementary Schools, Blue Group, on Dec 19th and is named Albert. All I record is the number, the rest of the information is recorded on my Data sheet. I bring the jug back to the golf cart and place it in the back with the others, all lying in the rack with their number tags sticking up. I repeat the process four more times before running out of fresh jugs and make my way back to the kitchen to filter, measure and sterilize (squirrels!) the sap. I have four tap lines, each with five trees which the students have identified and tapped. I try to get to at least one of these lines every day to switch out the buckets.
Brining the buckets into the kitchen I pour the sap from the bucket, through some cheese cloth into a graduated 4 litre’s pitcher. After recording the volume, I pour the sap into a stock pot, bringing it to a boil for two minutes (remember those squirrels) before I decide if I want the “raw” or un-reduced sap. 90% of the time I reduce the sap by half before freezing. At 50% it has color and flavor but is still the viscosity of water. This is how we store it as it takes up half the amount of space.
Today old Albert gave me 8 litre’s of sap. Which is in addition to 8 litre’s Albert gave three days before. In total today, I will collect 32 litre’s of sap from six trees out of the ten I checked. The other four were dry. I rinse out the jugs and set them aside to dry.
I take my data sheet back to my desk and sit down to enter the data into as spread sheet.
I record weather conditions, temperature and volume of sap on a daily basis. We are starting to build a pretty cool data set after a couple of years to help guide and discover the mysteries of when trees give their sap. This is a self-taught, self-driven exercise, I had some help in the first year from a local friend Patrick who knows about this stuff and showed me how to tap a tree. Some of the rest is from reading a book, but it is the doing and recording where I learn the most.
I’m going to go and think up a few more recipes where I can use this resource. I just happened to look in on the pigs on my way back….
Check out this video of the collection and preparation!
Executive Chef, Wade Rowland