Maple Syrup: Canada’s Liquid Gold
As we crossed into Eastern Ontario, a couple of days out of Toronto, I was accompanying Christiane through the beautiful Prince Edward County wine region. While chatting to a staff member at Harwood Estate Vineyards about various non alcoholic options for a sweep rider, the topic of maple syrup came up. I was well aware that the delicious, world famous maple syrup came from the eastern portion of Canada and I wanted to learn about and, of course, taste some of the local produce. As it turned out maple syrup is also very important in Prince Edward County and one of the farms happened to be just around the corner from our campsite.
Maple syrup had been enjoyed by the First Nation’s of North America long before the arrival of Europeans. They would use the sweet unrefined water obtained from the maple trees to cook venison, beginning the tradition of maple cured meats. It was most likely picked up by the French settlers who carried the tradition forward to this day in what is now a multi million dollar industry.
After dinner, a few of the staff cycled down the road to Vader’s Maple Syrup. Although it was well after 7pm, we were greeted by Mary Vader, whose family history in the area dates back to 1910. Not long after arriving, we were introduced to some other members of her family involved in the company. Her son Gary was kind enough to give us a tour of their “sugar bush”, a common name for a maple syrup farm, and explained the process of collecting the syrup and a bit about the industry itself.
While there are numerous types of maple trees throughout Canada and the US, maple syrup is only derived from the sweet sap of the Sugar Maple (‘Acer Saccharum’). The distribution of these trees across what is known as the Maple Belt includes the midwestern US, Ontario, Quebec & the Maritime provinces of Canada. Approximately 80% of the world’s maple syrup comes from Canada and 90% of that originates in the province of Quebec.
Collecting the sap is accomplished by one of two methods. Traditionally, it was done by drilling a hole in the trunk of the tree and then letting the sap drain into a wooden bucket. Today, a newer vacuum tubing system transfers the sap directly from the trees to a storage facility. I have seen a numerous examples of the black and blue tubing running throughout the maple trees on the side of the road or alongside the bike paths. The tubing was hard to miss, especially when passing through Plessiville on our way to Quebec City. The town claims to be the Maple Capital of the world and has hosted an annual Maple Festival since 1958!
The flow of sap occurs naturally only when weather conditions are favourable. This usually occurs in early spring when temperatures rise above freezing in the daytime then return to below freezing overnight, creating a positive pressure gradient. There can obviously be large variations in the length of the season. This was documented by a table on the wall showing the length of each year’s season – anywhere from a couple of weeks to nearly two months.
We were also shown a cross section of a maple tree that illustrated how a tree recovers over time from the sap drilling, the process of collecting the syrup is thus not detrimental to the life of the tree. Studies have also shown that the removing approximately 7% of a tree’s sap each year does no long term damage to the tree.
The sap that is collected from the trees is briefly stored. It then undergoes a series of processes including reverse osmosis and evaporation. This concentrates the syrup from the 2-5% sugar content when it leaves the tree to the 66-67% that is the legal requirement for it to be sold as maple syrup. You may laugh that there are strict regulations concerning the purity of maple syrup but when you consider that it takes approximately 40L of maple sap to produce 1L of maple syrup, it is not surprising that it needs to be regulated!
As with many other plant-based products such as wine, the final product varies greatly between regions and producers. Distinct differences in taste can be noticeable over very short geographical distances and it was a pity I didn’t have time to sample a few other syrups from the region. Fortunately, the area has Maple in the County festival in March and that might provide an opportune time to return!
The maple leaf itself has been considered Canada’s national symbol for almost two centuries and the current 11-point leaf was granted official national-symbol status and went on the flag in 1965. It is also visible on Air Canada planes, national hockey team jerseys, in the military and also on the Oh, Canada rider’s cycling kit!
You simply cannot visit Canada and not try some real, local maple syrup. Not only does maple syrup taste delicious it is a rare natural sweetener that contains essential minerals like potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, manganese, iron zinc and calcium, all in quantities much higher than honey!
We have been enjoying maple syrup since day 1 on the Oh, Canada Tour and will continue to do so as we cycle through Quebec. Staff members Vilma & Peter have already bought a wide selection of maple syrup, from original to amber and dark, that they intend to take back to Slovakia to give as gifts to friends!!