Spring's Sweet Nectar
This weekend was the perfect time to take a drive and visit a local Sugar Bush. Robinson's Maple Products, operated by Suzanne & Bill Robinson of St. Augustine, has been in business since 1976. They currently tap 20,000 trees in five hard maple bushes.
When I arrived Suzanne was bottling Maple Butter. For Maple Butter, Suzanne boils the maple syrup to 234°, cools it completely by placing in the snow (in the container) or in a cool place. Then, she pours the thickened syrup through a piece of equipment called the pig which churns it into the butter. It solidifies quickly when it's jarred and will separate in 4-6 weeks (stir before using). From 2.5 gallons, Suzanne bottled approximately thirty 300g jars of smooth maple butter which she recommends for icing cakes, coating ham (sticks better than liquid maple syrup) and is "best on toast".
Maple Candy is boiled to 244°. The store also offered "stirred sugar" .. maple syrup processed in a steam boiler for about a half day until most of the water is evaporated and the end product is a granular sugar. This process requires "a lot of running" says Suzanne (to prevent scorching).
It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. When collected, sap is approximately 98% water (2% sap). This trip to the Sugar Bush was quite different than my last experience as the Robinson's business is much more elaborate than what I had ever experienced. Arriving at the Sugar Camp we were first struck by the sheer size of the large white tanks by the door. Some of these tanks turned out to be for the run-off called "permeate" generated from the reverse osmosis system that removes approximately 15% of the water in the sap. Once through that system the sap is pumped to a holding tank on the second floor to enable a free-flow down to the evaporator below. There are four tanks in the evaporator, with a filtering system at the end. The syrup, is boiled down to 66.5° brix* (sap starts at 2° brix) it is stored in 32 gallon stainless steel barrels and every six to eight weeks fourteen to twenty barrels are bottled by the Robinson's for distribution. (Maple Butter measures 90° brix and taffy is 100° brix.)
Sap is collected by vacuum through those blue lines you see in the modern sugar bush. Each of the Robinson's bushes has its own pumphouse for this purpose. The sugar content is lower than in sap collected by traditional pails and there's less loss of transfer between the tree and the collection tanks. The bushes are walked every two days to check the lines with "eyes" and "ears" … as the vacuum can be heard to the discerning ear if the connection has been broken by wildlfe or fallen branches.
The equipment used in the sugar camp is stainless steel which keeps the Maple Syrup much lighter in colour than in the past. Keeping the equipment clean is vital to prevent bacteria in the final products.
I, of course, could not leave the bush without some fresh maple products – Maple butter and fresh maple syrup. I had to try one of Suzanne's recipes and settled on Tangy Maple Meat Balls which I served with fresh asparagus and basmati rice. They were delicious and simple to make (see recipe below). For more of Suzanne's recipes … visit her website here. And, for the record, my all-time favourite way to enjoy maple syrup is with fresh baked biscuits that are also stuffed with raisins.
Robinson's Maple Products are certified organic meaning they are federally and provincially inspected regularly. To maintain this certification careful records are kept as traceability if vital. Organic means there is no fertilizing in the bush and no chemicals used in the processing. They are available in many places around southwestern Ontario and the Robinson's ship their maple products internationally – mostly to Japan, with emerging markets in China and Ukraine. International rules are sometimes challenging, but this information indicates another level of expertise met by this local food producer.
This year's season is a little later than is typical due to the very cold weather in early March. Once the temperature rises 8 to 10 degrees above 0 for 2-3 days and the buds come out in the trees, the season ends as the chemical makeup of the sap changes and the taste becomes bitter.
*Degrees Brix (symbol °Bx) is the sugar content of an aqueous solution. One degree Brix is 1 gram of sucrose in 100 grams of solution and represents the strength of the solution as percentage by weight (% w/w). If the solution contains dissolved solids other than pure sucrose, then the °Bx only approximates the dissolved solid content.
1/2 lb ground beef
1/2 lb ground pork
1/4 cup chopped onion
2 tbsp dried parsley flakes
1 tsp Worchestershire Sauce
1/2 tsp salt
1/8 tsp pepper
Preheat oven to 350. Combined above ingredients and form into 1 1/2" balls. Please in 8" square pan, bake for 20 minutes.
1 tbsp cornstarch
1 tsp dry mustard
1/4 tsp salt
1 tbsp vinegar
1/2 cup pure maple syrup
1/4 c water
Combine cornstarch, mustard and salt in small saucepan. Gradually stir in vinegar, maple syrup and water. Cook and stir over medium heat until thickened and bubbly. Drain fat from the meatballs, pour sauce over meatballs. Bake 20 minutes.
Robinson Maple Products
84548 St. Augustine Line
Auburn, ON N0M 1E0