The only suitable terroir in the world for maple syrup is the Greater Northeast, the geographic triangle running from Michigan to New Brunswick (Canada) to West Virginia. In the heart of this triangle is upstate New York. (Our Maple Syrup directory has links to the websites for 13 Maple Syrup Producers Associations in 11 U.S. states and 2 Canadian provinces. Lots of info on sugar houses open for visitors!)
We spotlighted in a book review a couple years ago, Katie Webster’s wonderful cookbook, Maple, 100 Sweet and Savory Recipes Featuring Pure Maple Syrup, which also includes an informative and concise history of sugar making from the sap of maple trees. Although the earliest history of the process of boiling down maple sap to extract sugar is unknown, early European explorers and settlers observed native Americans do so and soon emulated them.
Webster notes that in the early 1800s, production had become so widespread that Quakers and abolitionists urged the use of maple sugar as an alternative to plantation sugar cane produced by slave labor. This is a particularly fascinating factoid during our current moment in American history where the subject of racism dominates much of the political conversation and has compelled a reexamination of the historical narrative.
Maple syrup is the first harvest of the year in the Greater Northeast. This past week, with daytime temperatures rising above the freezing mark and nights staying chilly and below 32 °F, the sap has just begun to run in the Mohawk Valley/Capital Region of upstate New York.
During the year, the bulk food section of the Honest Weight Food Co-op in my hometown of Albany, NY has been a reliable source of delicious maple syrup offering various grades of the natural sweetener from Adirondack Maple Farms, based in Fonda (Montgomery County), New York. Of late, the food co-op has offered 4 grades: light amber, medium amber, dark amber, and Grade B dark.
The co-op’s grading categories varies somewhat from the grading of maple syrup by the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). In 2015, the AMS specified four new color and flavor classes as follows: (i) Grade A Golden, delicate flavor; (ii) Grade A Amber, rich flavor; (iii) Grade A Dark, robust flavor: and Grade A Very Dark, strong flavor. The use of the older grades for labeling of maple syrup at the co-op reflects the fact that the remarkable bulk food section of the Honest Weight Food Co-op has been selling maple syrup for many years!
With the sun shining and the temperature approaching the mid 40s °F, an hour’s drive west from Albany to Fonda seemed an appealing way to celebrate the start of the sugaring season, and to see the source for my home town food co-op’s maple syrup. The timing of my visit was serendipitous since this past Wednesday was the very first day Adirondack Maple Farm was collecting sap from its sugar bushes in Montgomery and Otsego Counties.
As I pulled up near the small shack where the farm offers its products, a tanker truck was returning in late afternoon with the first run of sap to be made into the delicious natural sweetener. The first run of sap usually has the highest sugar content and is the sweetest. And how sweet it is to celebrate that spring 2021 will soon be here by a visit to where maple syrup comes from!
(Frank W. Barrie, March 1, 2021)