If you're curious, like me, you'll follow the chalk.
The markings start in Union Square in Somerville:
When you get to the Community Growing Center you know you're there. The sweet smell of boiling sap, traveling on a breeze, may reach you before the sign does.
I had never before witnessed the achingly slow spectacle of a maple sap boil. Every spring, all around New England and Canada, and everywhere else maples flourish and people enjoy the sweet taste of maple syrup, tin hatted buckets attached to the sides of sugar maple and red maple trees store the collected drips of the annual spring sap flow. Over days and weeks the sap grows from a small, occasional drip to a more insistent and frequent drop, eventually making enough to be pooled and collected into large buckets and finally boiled down into the sweetest maple ambrosia.
It takes approximately 40 gallons of sap to make even a single gallon of syrup. The exact amount depends on the sugar content of the sap (usually between 2-3%). Sometimes it takes less. Maple trees yield anywhere from 15 to 40 gallons of sap in a season. And the season is short - temperatures that trigger flow are between 40 and 45 degrees F. Any lower and the sugary sap stops flowing, any higher and the sugar becomes starch (and ceases to flow). It is a fleeting task with only the briefest window of time. A window that is captured in these charts made by school children participating (I presume) in the Growing Center's programs.
Because of the New England propaganda I've been subject to since childhood, I always imagined the boil down taking place exclusively in a sugar house, staffed by Pendelton-clad farmers with sun-aged skin and weathered hands.
The boil down at the Community Growing Center on March 9th and 10th took all those preconceptions and chucked them out the window. There was not a flannel to be seen. One of the volunteers was wearing something much more intersting - a hoodie with this sweet-themed illustration sewn on:
The scene around the boiling, bubbling cauldron of sap was less farmstead and more urban casual.
The sugar vat was surrounded by 5 gallon buckets, many marked up and labeled. All of them had come from Somerville, on a piece of land owned by Tufts University. The project is a joint partnership between Tufts (whose students teach the maple curriculum in the Somerville public schools), Groundwork Somerville (a city-run program) and the Community Growing Center. The syrup, when finished, will be used for fundraisers and some of it will be donated to food assistance programs.
On Saturday, when I visited, the sap had already been boiling for a day, all day and all night. On the first day, March 9th, more than 200 public school students stopped by to learn about the process and taste maple syrup. The volunteers boiling sap were working around the clock and on the second day would work well into the night until they were finished cooking down the 80 gallons of sap they had collected. Because the surface area of the vat is so big, the volunteers would take the almost-finished syrup home (approximately 2 gallons when done) and finish boiling it in a smaller container to prevent it from burning.
The vat is a thing of beauty. A hot wood fire keeps the sap on the boil. There's even a second warming area where the sap is poured to be gently heated before it is added to the boil. Adding cold sap to the boil could be dangerous - it could cause a sort of boiling eruption, which could cause burns.
The vat itself was made by metal fabrication students at Somerville High School who left their mark:
Wood is added to the fire by a door on the side:
As the sap boils, scum collects on the surface. It is constantly skimmed off:
When the level of boiled sap gets low, a spigot is opened and hot sap is added to the boil:
The steam is a key reason why boiling maple sap down is something you should never do in your kitchen. It will mold your ceilings and steam your windows unless you have a great hood. Most of the time, the boiling sap is obscured by a cover of steam.
When the sap is reduced to the half-way mark, it begins to look like syrup, with a light amber color:
They let us taste the sap and the half-boiled sap. I loved the faintly sweet flavor of the sap - it was something I could imagine drinking as a stand-alone beverage. And the half-boiled sap was pleasant and light, though it lacked the viscosity and body one expects from finished maple syrup.
Next to the bottle of half-boiled sap was a display of different grades of syrup, which are determined by the USDA (!!). The lowest grade B is always dark and made late in the season, with strong maple and caramel flavor. The highest grade - Grade A Light Amber - is a mild, light colored syrup with more subtlety than substance. In culinary school, we stocked the kitchens with grade B, as it was better suited to our baking and cooking and withstood the assault of heat and other ingredients. This website has a great explanation of the grades and is a handy reference to all things maple.
Grades, left to right: A Dark Amber, A Amber, Vermont Fancy A.
Next to the table with the syrups was a table with some of the tools the syrup makers were using, including a nifty MASSIVE sap thermometer from New Hampshire (the syrup is finished when it is 66-67% sugar at 7.1 degrees above the local boiling point):
The finished Grade B Somerville maple syrup (which you can see in the right corner of the above photo) is very dark and viscous. It has a deep caramel flavor that out-competes the maple flavor. When I tasted it, I couldn't tell right away it was real maple because of the pronounced caramel notes.
Here's what some kids had to say about the flavor of the maple syrup:
I was really wowed by the Maple Syrup Project. In a few short minutes I learned more about maple than I had ever learned in years of eating and cooking with maple syrup - and I'm not even the target audience. I was also impressed that something usually associated with the rural countryside - maple syrup making - was thriving in the city. This spring I'll look around my mom's property for maple trees. If I find some, I'll be setting up my own taps and a boil for next year.
And, while you are checking links, please check out FIGHT BACK FRIDAY, the Food Renegade's celebration of real food. I promise it will be worth your time!