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  • Writer's pictureAnnemarie Bolduc

Organic Maple Syrup

If you're curious about the Canadian sugaring season, to know what certifies maple syrup as organic, and everything about its sustainable cultivation and benefits, read on!

Spoons of Maple Syrup • Photography © Bottle and Brush Studio 2022

Produced all over the eastern North American woodland regions, maple syrup is one of Canada's most important native and natural food products, exported worldwide. Indigenous peoples were the first to cultivate the sugar sap of maple trees and taught the process to the early settlers. The region where I grew up, in the Appalachian Mountains of Québec, is one of the top maple-producing regions of the country. As a child, we had annual afternoon sugar parties at our family’s old maple bush camp, owned by my great-grandfather over 100 years ago. Everyone brought their wooden spatula to dip in the big outdoor boiler pot and to scoop some taffy to let it cool on the snow. Yummmm. I remember drinking the water sap straight from the tree buckets, which was very cold and did not taste very sweet, but it was fascinating. On my last visit home, I had the chance to experience the maple season again after so many years, and I learnt more than I knew before about transforming the maple sap into syrup. I took many notes and photographs (and a few cans of syrup) to bring back home to Australia, and here is a little sample for you.


Traditional hobby sugar camp • Photography © Bottle and Brush Studio 2023


HOW IS MAPLE SYRUP MADE?

In maple-producing regions, the snow begins to melt in the early change to spring after a long, cold winter. The water is absorbed from the roots into the maple trees at night when the temperature is close to -0C, and warmer days that are a bit up from 0C push the water back down, making tapping (from the tree trunk) possible. Then, the "sugaring season" begins and lasts for a short period, generally three to four weeks per sugar bush (the maple woodland owned by syrup makers). Depending on the region, the time frame will occur from early March to late April. The sap, also called maple water or starch, is collected from the tree by drilling a hole in the trunk that will leak into the traditional buckets or modern tubing. It is then carried (traditionally with horses) to the “cabane à sucre” (often translated as sugar shack, camp or house) to be boiled for several hours at 104C in a large evaporator that processes the water as a concentrated sweet syrup. The general ratio is 40 litres of sap to make 1 litre of maple syrup. The syrup is then filtered and bottled or canned at the camp while it’s hot. Whether operated by hobbyists or commercial producers, it is intense seasonal work as you can only collect sap when trees are dripping. Traditional camps were in the middle of the woods, without power, so the quantity of firewood was vital to last the whole harvest. Today, new technologies, like the reverse osmosis system, help reduce the water content in the collected sap, saving on wood, oil or energy. I know many Australians who would love the whole process of maple cultivation, but it would be impossible, even in the Snowy regions. Suitable sugar and red maple trees can be grown successfully here, but winters are not icy enough for the trees to freeze the stored sugar and run sap from the wood when the temperature drops.


Maple syrup making and canning • Photography © Bottle and Brush Studio 2023


HOW DO WARMING CHANGES AFFECT MAPLE SAP PRODUCTION?

Spring thaw and weather conditions are critical to the length of the sugar season, and syrup makers are now challenged to adapt to warmer changes. Once the trees bud, the maple harvest season is over. The hotter the summer, the more tree growth is enhanced, which results in a higher sweetness rate as sugar is absorbed in the leaves from photosynthesis. Early and intermittent spring thaw causes early harvest, shortening the harvest season or sometimes resulting in a positive production volume. Still, earlier preparation is something maple producers are increasingly adjusting to. The maple industry is doing its part in the fight against climate change with evolving sustainable practices. The fact that maple sugar forests absorb and store more carbon than what causes maple syrup production is another pro for its cultivation, even on a large scale. In contrast to timber forestry and farming, the maple bush is preserved as a wild forest.


Maple bush and warmer seasons • Photography © Bottle and Brush Studio 2023


WHAT CERTIFIES MAPLE SYRUP AS ORGANIC?

Knowing that maple syrup is eco-friendly, natural and produced only in a native forest, the big question is, what makes syrup organic? What applies generally in Canadian norms and are inspected are the equipment cleaning products, the maintenance of the maple bush, tapping practices, conversion techniques, storage, preservation, fertilising methods, etc. All products used for any of these practices must be chemical-free, and no additives are allowed in the quality or presentation of the syrup. A maple forest looks after itself and naturally regenerates if the ecosystem is preserved. Organic maple-producing practice also means keeping companion tree species like yellow birch, spruce, fir and other vegetation in the maple bush. Another important criterion is the tapping of the trees. Drilled holes to install the taps create wounds to the trees, but only harm them if done incorrectly. This means never drilling in the same spot and waiting until a tree is big enough to tap initially. Depending on the trunk size, each tree can take one to three taps but can only be tapped once in the season. The taps are removed after harvest, and the wounds heal. The trees can be tapped in the following seasons, and for decades to come. In Québec, small businesses with organic principles won’t necessarily need to undergo certification as their clientele is mainly local, and people trust their favourite syrup is of the highest quality. Most don’t have a brand and sell their syrup in the iconic illustrated standard cans with producer info added on stickers. However, international demand for certified organic products has increased the number of producers who tick all the boxes of environmentally friendly practices.


Maple syrup grade and products • Photography © Bottle and Brush Studio 2019-023


WHY CHOOSE PURE SYRUP?

Pure maple syrup is only made with boiled maple sap. It is free from additives and preservatives and nutrient-rich, offering high levels of antioxidants with fewer calories than honey. While honey has a floral tone, maple syrup has a distinct caramel, woody and buttery flavour. It is a good source of energy and one of the few good sweeteners, making it an excellent substitute for any sugar. It is transparent and has different quality grades, classifications, and sub-categories. The early harvest is ultra-light and delicate. The amber colour is balanced with mild, sweet, rich maple flavour and is the most popular in home kitchens. The late harvest darker variety has a strong caramelized taste and is mainly imported internationally as it is less expensive. The last one, ultra-dark, is only used as a commercial flavouring ingredient for the food industry. The product to avoid is maple-flavoured syrups, which contain corn syrup mixed with artificial maple flavour. In Québec, we call those: “sirop de poteau” (telephone post syrup). Maple syrup is commonly used on pancakes and waffles, but there are many ways to use it in desserts, jams, cocktails and savoury dishes. It brings incredible flavour to meat (marinades, roasts, stews, cured pork), nuts, vegetables, salad dressing, baked beans, and so much more!


Sugaring festive season • Photography © Bottle and Brush Studio 2023


PLANNING A VISIT TO MAPLE COUNTRY?

Québec spring maple celebrations are worth the experience. If you are attending a sugar shack meal, have a hungry belly, and expect to sit at long tables with many groups of people. From small rustic wood cabins to large settings, those venues are only open in season and offer the complete “lumberjack-style” buffet made with local terroir products, followed by some taffy on snow and activities like horse sleigh rides, traditional music and dance, snowshoe hikes in the woods, educative demonstrations, etc. They are very popular from mid-March to mid-April, especially on Easter weekend, so booking ahead is essential. If you have the chance to visit a private shack, you’ll be amazed to see how it is made, feel the warmth of boilers, smell the snow and boiling syrup and surely be offered to taste half-boiled syrup mixed with dry gin. I thank those who warmly welcomed me and gave me detailed instructions. Maple syrup making is a science transmitted from generations of families. My family heritage wood shack has been abandoned in the woods for years after my great uncle’s passing, who was looking after the shack, but it is still there! With my dad, uncle, and husband (an Aussie), I had the immense pleasure of finding its location in the woods (access was by foot only) during summer last year, and after 40ish years, it was magic.


Our old family shack in Pontbriand • Photography © Bottle and Brush Studio 2023


WHERE TO FIND GOOD MAPLE PRODUCTS IN AUSTRALIA

Canadian pure maple syrup can be purchased in various brands and grades in most Australian supermarkets. It is more expensive than buying it in Canada (locally, a 540 ml can is $7 to $10), but import costs must be considered. Maple syrup is essential to my survival… (in moderation, of course) growing up with it. The idea that it is a sustainable import product, 100% pure, healthy, and delightful, is worth the extra dollars and support. As maple is not produced in Australia, it does not compete with local products. If you balance the usage with local raw honey, depending on what you need it for, you encourage both our Canadian forest preservation and your region’s beekeepers. If you want certified organic maple syrup, search for Escuminac bottles and cans. This quality brand from Québec is available in Australian gourmet shops or online and is sold in different harvest colour grades. Another Canadian organic syrup can be purchased online at goodness.com.au. For more Canadian maple products, check out ocanada.com.au, and find the famous maple whisky liqueur Sortilège at danmurphys.com.au. If you wish to plant a sugar maple in your backyard and enjoy the beautiful autumn foliage and benefits of a deciduous tree, go to diggersclub.com.au to order your baby maple tree!


Stunning rustic maple shack in Varennes • Photography © Bottle and Brush Studio 2023


To know more about the iconic can of maple syrup, read this post: The Maple Syrup Can


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