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Chris Rosenblum: Maple harvest a sweet passion

John Michael Rosenblum, 13, attaches a sap collection bucket to a maple tree.
John Michael Rosenblum, 13, attaches a sap collection bucket to a maple tree. Photo provided

As far as sappy ideas go, this one wasn’t bad.

This year, my wife, Michele, decided to tap the three sugar maples on our property. I was surprised. Shamefully, despite my New England roots, it had never occurred to me in the 15 years we’ve lived in our home to try maple sugaring.

Our trees provided shade in the summer, a weekend raking hobby in the fall and squirrel high-rises throughout the year. That some of them could also be a food source escaped me. Perhaps I should hand in my Red Sox cap.

It took a native Californian to get us in this sticky situation.

When Michele was 11, she visited her cousins in Vermont on a summer trip and saw their sugar bush and sugar house. Ever since, she has harbored a curiosity about making her own syrup, a natural extension of her love for gardening and growing vegetables.

Previously, for one reason or another, she never went any further than dreaming. But this winter, at the tail end of a brutal slog, was different.

Looking ahead to spring, she noticed the anticipated weather boded well for sap production. Forecasts called for the classic March yo-yo swing — daytime temperatures over 40 shifting to below freezing at night — that spurs maple trees to do their thing.

This was it: no more fantasies. We were going to see what our excuse for a sugar bush could do.

Michele ordered a starter kit: three plastic buckets with lids; spigots called spiles; a drill bit; and cheesecloth for straining out twigs, bits of bark and other impurities from the sap before boiling.

The prospect of a house-brand maple syrup was appealing, a taste of the frontier days on our cozy suburban lot. We weren’t saps going in. We understood that we weren’t magically going to have bottles of syrup from our little operation, not when it usually takes roughly 40 gallons of sap to produce one of syrup.

That’s a lot to ask of three trees. Even so, after the kit arrived and we carefully followed the instructions to drill holes and gently tap in the spiles, we were disappointed when the first days yielded only minuscule pools in the buckets.

Had we made rookie mistakes? Would this leave a sour taste in our mouths about maple sugaring? For comparison, I turned to experienced hands.

Ben Macneal, of Macneal Orchards and Sugarbush in Livonia on Centre County’s eastern tip, runs a business that produces hundreds of gallons of delicious amber liquid each year. Some years, he’s been done by now, the weather too warm, the daily yo-yo gone.

This time, he said, it’s still early in the season. Snow had been lingering in his sugar bush even before Thursday’s storm.

“It was a very cold January and February,” Macneal said. “It just kept the trees very dormant. They come out of dormancy by collecting heat units.”

As a careful weather observer, a must in the maple syrup business, he’s optimistic. His initial yield has been good considering the cold, but he sees better days ahead, probably into mid-April.

“We still have a lot of the season to go yet,” he said.

I felt better. Our trees weren’t barren. They just were thawing out like everybody.

Ella Velazquez improved my outlook even more.

She’s an environmental education intern at the Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center in Stone Valley. This weekend, she’s been busy helping stage the center’s annual Maple Harvest Festival, which concludes Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.

For the festival’s pancake brunches, the center uses maple syrup from producers in Coudersport and Salisbury rather than from its own sugar bush. With just 23 tapped trees, the staff would be hard-pressed to produce enough syrup in the center’s sugar house to drizzle over dozens of pancake stakes — especially this year.

So far, the staff members have made only four little jars of syrup.

“It’s been not such a great maple syrup season till now,” Velazquez said. “The sugar content in the trees has been really low.”

That’s meant more sap needed — in the center’s case, widening the syrup ratio to about 75:1. But like Macneal, Velazquez has high hopes for more stimulating weather in the coming weeks.

So do the Rosenblums.

“We’ve got sap!” Michele sang out a week ago, checking a bucket after days of nothing.

Indeed, we did, a lovely sight, and now we’re seeing steady drips. Our maples are feeling it. Every other day, if not daily, Michele makes her collections and boils down the sap, following Macneal’s advice.

A common mistake, he explained, is to not boil sap when it’s fresh, allowing it to accumulate in buckets or sit in storage. Yeast forms quickly, even at low temperatures, eating away the sugar. Refrigeration or ultraviolet lights shining on the surface help, but time isn’t a friend.

“For us, we like to keep things very clean and boil the sap within a day of collection,” he said.

Sap also should be boiled to about 7 degrees Fahrenheit above the boiling point of water to ensure a syrup’s proper viscosity and longevity.

Little by little, we’re amassing our supply. In our sugar house, a dead ringer for our kitchen, Michele has boiled down enough sap for about a quarter-cup of honest-to-goodness syrup — all ours, like we’re back in the colonial days in a Massachusetts village.

We may not be able to hold our own pancake feast yet — unless we serve mouse-sized portions — but success never tasted sweeter.

On second thought, I’ll hang on to my Red Sox cap.

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