Thursday, 10 April 2014

I'd tap that

I love trees. Not, as the title might suggest, in some sort of ‘unholy’ way (It’s actually quite ‘hole-y”, as you’ll soon learn), but I just love being around trees, the sound of their leaves, the way they look silhouetted against the evening sky.  But this time of year, I love them just a little bit more than usual, for the very utilitarian fact that they provide delicious sap.  Sure it came a little later than usual this year thanks to the brutal winter we’ve had, but my maple trees finally started running this past week.

I don’t have a huge woodlot or anything either, just a modest suburban corner lot with a grand total of 5 maple trees (I had 6 until a storm blew one down last fall, destroying some fence but thankfully narrowly missing both my kids’ playhouse and my boat trailer).  But on a day like today (around 6 degrees Celsius and sunny) the sap will be running out of those things like nobody’s business.  My method is to drill a hole in the south-facing side of the tree – I don’t think the height really matters all that much but I tend to make it about 2-3 feet off the ground.  I make them about 3 inches deep, and you could use a drill bit anywhere from about ¼ to ½ an inch.  I have an old hand crank drill that I inherited from my grandfather (which I like to use because it makes me feel like an old-time voyageur or something), but a regular power drill works fine too.   

The important thing is to drill the hole so that you can wedge the end of some plastic tubing firmly into the hole so that it stays there by friction.  I use just regular clear plastic tubing that you should be able to find for dirt cheap at any plumbing or hardware store.  I run each tube from the tree into the mouth of a 1.5 Litre wine bottle (Why do I have a tonne of empty 1.5 Litre wine bottles? Don’t you judge me!). Wine bottles work well because they’re narrow enough at the top that no bark and other shit from the tree will fall into your sap.  If there’s snow on the ground still, you can hold the bottle in place by wedging it in the snow (which has the added advantage of keeping the sap cool.  On a sunny day like today, that bottle will be full to the brim of sap by the time I get home from work.

Now for the interesting part.  You may be tempted to boil that shit down to make maple syrup.  Well don’t! Just drink it straight up.  I’ve been collecting sap for four years now.  The first year I collected massive amounts and froze it in my deep freeze.  Then one day we set up a propane cooker and poured it all into a big lobster pot and spend the day boiling it down.  It consumed almost an entire tank of propane to keep the sap bubbling away all day, and all of the stirring and monitoring the temperature to prevent burning proved to be more effort than the end product justified.  We ended up with about a Litre of syrup, and it was delicious.  But chances are, if you’re reading this blog, you aren’t shovelling down pancakes and waffles on the regular.  And if you are, you should really stop that you tubby bitch – that shit is bad for you.  Aside from using it as a glaze for grilled salmon or maybe sparingly in salad dressings, the uses of large quantities of maple syrup for the health conscious person, are somewhat limited.

But sap on the other hand…it’s nature’s Gatorade.  In the past three years, I’ve foregone the boiling down process and just drank the sap directly from the tree as an energy drink.

Sap from two different trees - notice the different colour

According to Nutrition Data (which I have no reason to doubt), one cup of maple syrup has 216 grams of carbohydrate (of which 192 grams are sugar).  When I boiled the sap down that year, I didn’t measure the ratio precisely (sap to syrup yield), but from what I’ve read, the usual ratio is about 40:1.  That is, you need 40 Litres of sap to yield one Litre of syrup.  That varies a bit through the season, and the species of tree (I’ve used Sugar Maple, Red Maple and even Manitoba Maple) but I suspect it’s roughly correct.  By that logic, a cup of straight-up sap would contain about 5 grams of sugar.  That’s only a teaspoon, which is a hell of a lot better than commercial energy drinks that probably contain 25-30 grams per cup.  It fits with the taste of the sap, which is like very mildly sweet water with a subtle treeish undertone (fellow Tolkien fans will get that one).  I don’t think it’s made me grow any taller or made my hair curlier, but it’s incredibly refreshing.  I haven’t been able to find a nutritional analysis of maple sap anywhere, but it stands to reason that it would have trace amounts of a bunch of vitamins and minerals as well.  I trust that more so than I do the manufactured ratios of electrolytes (mostly sodium) found in commercial drinks.  

According to this article, sap contains quite a bit of calcium, which might explain the folk belief that it was good for the bones.  I actually lived in South Korea for a little over a year between 2005-2006, but I was oblivious to the fact that this is the one place in the world where people seem to have a tradition of drinking maple sap. Whether the “good for bones” claims are true or not, it’s a delicious drink that I look forward to each spring.  I took about a Litre of it with me to my regular Monday evening basketball league this week.  We play for about 90 minutes, so I usually just drink water.  And I’m not going to lie that my energy levels are usually a bit lower towards the end of the night.  But this week, I was busting my ass down the court right until the end of the night.  I felt great, was grabbing more rebounds, felt lighter on my feet.  It could have been placebo…but then again maybe it was something in the water.

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.
- Dylan Thomas

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