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Thứ Bảy, 29 tháng 3, 2014

Slant streets sugarin': Norway maples supply the sap, ed moriarity provides ... - The Missoulian

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The art of urban maple syrup harvesting in Missoula is somewhat of a haphazard science.


“Sugarin’,” as Ed Moriarity learned to call it from his East Coast relatives, doesn’t require a lot of skill or fancy equipment. It does require patience, though, and it’s done best when one simply gets a feel for the process.


Instead of modern tapping methods such as vacuum hoses, Moriarity uses a broken metal arrow shaft to puncture the bark of the Norway maples in the backyard of his Slant Streets neighborhood home. And instead of an industrial evaporator, he boils his sap over a wood fire in an old metal filing cabinet with a stove pipe to keep ash and smoke away.


For about a month in the spring, he collects more than a hundred gallons of clear sap from six trees in his and his neighbor’s yards.


“The sap is a little bit sweet, but it’s basically water,” he said last Wednesday as he cut more firewood from old pallets. “It would actually be good with some ice and a lemon. Maple sap spoils, so you can’t store it for very long. They say to treat it like milk. Once you get to syrup, the concentration is at such a point that it’s a little more stable.”


***


After he collects the sap from jars hanging on the trees, he spends countless hours carefully boiling it down until it becomes syrup.


Using sugar maple trees, which are found back East, it takes about 40 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup. With Norway maples, which are the most common type in Missoula, it takes between 60 and 75 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup.


That means a lot of boiling. Steam and smoke rise as the golden-brown liquid churns in two trays – one for heating and the other for maintaining a constant boil to condense the sugar.


“Every time you add cold sap, you slow down your boil, and that takes time,” he explained. “You want to keep it rolling as consistently as possible. At this point, the harder it’s boiling the better. I’m certainly no expert. There might be some effect on the quality of the syrup. But for me, I like to keep it going as hot as I can get it. The more it’s rolling, the more water it’s putting off.”


He also has to keep filtering out stray bits of ash and other impurities.


It takes about 45 minutes of boiling over the fire to condense five gallons of sap. Then he transfers the liquid to a turkey fryer because it’s easier to control the heat.


***


In the final stage, he transfers the liquid to the stovetop in his kitchen and uses a candy thermometer to track the temperature. It requires careful attention to know when the syrup is finally done.


“If I had a hydrometer, which measures the sugar content, I could say more specifically,” he said. “But really it’s finished when the syrup is about 6 1/2 degrees above the boiling point of water.”


However, the boiling point of water changes daily due to fluctuations in barometric pressure.


“It’s roughly about 215 degrees,” Moriarity explained. “When your syrup is boiling at 215 degrees, you have to stop. If you go much higher than that, somewhere in the mid-220s, it becomes like rock candy. There’s various things that happen to it after that, but basically it gets more and more hard from what I understand.”


It’s only when the liquid gets super concentrated that he really has to keep track of the temperature.


“I’ll boil 45 gallons down to a gallon and a half before there is any change in temperature,” he said. “It’s only in the last little bit that the temperature starts to rise. You just finally get there. And by that time it’s well brown.”


After one last filter, Moriarity is ready to dish out the homemade treat to his wife and two kids, or give it away to neighbors.


“I’m on a diet now, but I eat maple syrup on everything,” he said. “It goes great on ice cream.”


***


Moriarity grew up in Wyoming, and when he first bought his house, he didn’t really think much of the maple trees other than their aesthetic value.


“My wife is from Maine, and I was out visiting her several years back and we went to a sugar house out there and saw how simple it was,” he recalled. “And she was saying how much she missed sugarin’ back home. And I have trees. I had no idea I would end up doing this.”


Last year was his first attempt.


“Last year’s batch was really, really blond, which means it had a higher grade,” he said. “It’s supposed to be preferred. That’s supposed to be better. Syrup is graded on color. The lighter the better. But, honestly, I didn’t care for the syrup as much last year. I like more flavor. This year, it has more of an oakey flavor.”


After all is said and done, he’ll end up with 2 1/2 gallons of the stuff.


“A gallon of syrup can sell for $100, but you don’t want to do all the math on the expenses I’ve put in, especially if you consider it like billable hours,” he said, grinning. “But there’s easily 1,000 trees in this town. If someone had a proper evaporator and a commercial kitchen, you could make $25,000. But it would take a lot of work.”


***


Sugarin’ season is always in spring because weather fluctuations cause the sap to flow up and down the height of the tree.


“The temperature has to fall below freezing at night and get to above freezing during the day, and it has to be before the trees start to bud,” Moriarity explained. “In New England, you are looking at like six weeks of time. That’s a lot of sap and syrup. Here, I think you could probably do it for about a month. Once the trees bud, there’s a chemical reaction that would turn the sap bitter.”


Wednesday was probably the last day that he was going to be able to collect sap.


“It depends on how cold it gets at night and how warm it gets during the day,” he said. “From what I understand, it’s the contracting and expansion of the wood that kind of circulates the sap. So last night I don’t even think we got below freezing, and if we did, not for very long. But a couple days ago we had a really cold night and a really warm day and it was dropping two or three drips a second. I had to empty my jars three times during the day.”


As a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist, Moriarity knows the therapeutic value of a good hobby. He sometimes watches his sap boil until 2:30 in the morning, losing himself in the steam and smoke.


“They say watching fish and watching fire are some of the most relaxing things,” he said, his eyes not moving from the roiling liquid. “I think watching this boil is pretty relaxing as well.”







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