Maple syrup mysteries
Published April 20, 2017
Spring is a season of mysteries.
For instance: How do plants know when to start growing? How do hibernators such as bears know when to wake up? Why do mosquitoes and blackflies not move to another planet?
But surely the greatest mystery is about the sweetest of all spring things. How did maple syrup get invented?
We know that indigenous peoples were the first to have it. The mystery is how did they make the jump from bitter tree sap to the sweet golden fluid that makes pancakes and waffles so scrumptious? No one has been able to provide the answer in more than 500 years.
It is easy to speculate how these early peoples discovered sap. Walk through the spring woods and look at woodpecker holes or a broken branch. Or cut a recently blown down tree.
The sap is easy to see, or feel if you are handling wood or touching trees. But how did someone realize that collecting a large quantity of sap, then boiling it down 40 to one, would produce one of the world’s tastiest delights?
There are legends, of course. One of the most common is that a chief stuck his tomahawk into a maple tree one night before going to bed. His wife had left a bark vessel at the base of the tree below the tomahawk.
In the morning the wife found the vessel filled with what appeared to be rain water that had run down the tree. So she decided to boil a piece meat in it and noticed the water turning brown and getting thicker. The meat had a sweet maple flavour.
Not likely. The Indians had maple syrup long before the Europeans arrived and gave them metal hatchets.
More likely, maple syrup resulted from experimentation. Tree saps were used for many purposes. Spruce gum was collected, mixed with animal fat then rendered over fire to make the sticky substance used to seal canoe seams.
Someone likely was doing something similar when they dipped a finger in to test thickness, then licked the finger and Eureka!
The Indians pushed slips of bark into cuts in maple trunks to allow sap to drip into bark buckets set below. When the French arrived, the Indians showed them the process, which the newcomers modified by drilling tap holes and using metal collection and boiling pots.
Maple syrup was a nice treat for personal use but processing did not become an industry until the mid-1800s. Most of the cane sugar consumed in the United States back then came from black slave labour in the southern states and the Caribbean.
As the anti-slavery movement grew and the civil war loomed, many abolitionists urged boycotting cane sugar and use of maple sugar instead.
“Cane sugar is the result of the forced labour of the most wretched slaves, toiling under the cruel lash of a cutting whip,” William Drown wrote in the 1824 Compendium of Agriculture. “While the maple sugar is made by those who are happy and free.”
Large flat evaporator pans replaced kettles for processing larger amounts of syrup and maple sugar. The rest, as they say, is history.
The maple syrup industry grew consistently with improved techniques, equipment and marketing of maple products abroad. Canada now produces 80 per cent of the world’s pure maple syrup, the majority of which comes from Quebec’s 7,000 or so producers.
The maple syrup industry generates hundreds of millions of dollars a year for the Canadian economy. Some estimates put maple syrup at 13 times more costly than crude oil.
It has become so valuable that it was the subject of a mystery five years ago. Someone tapping barrels in a maple syrup storehouse found that some sounded odd, or not completely full.
Further investigation revealed that thieves had stolen $18 million (wholesale price) worth of syrup over 12 months from a stockpile kept by the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers. Thieves with access to the warehouse drained maple syrup from 9,500 barrels and refilled them with water. They sold the stolen syrup on the black market.
Roughly 225 investigators were used in trying to solve the case. Finally, 26 people were charged in the theft, 17 of whom were eventually convicted.