There can be no greater harbinger of a New Brunswick spring than the sight of silver buckets affixed to the majestic sugar maple (Acer saccharum). They bring visions of sticky sweet maple taffy, creamy butter, blocks of sugar, or buttermilk pancakes swimming in pure fragrant syrup.
And there can be nothing to enliven the winter-weary heart more than an excursion to the sugar woods on a sunny, warm spring day. Search out one of these traditional wooden sugar shacks and you’ll find a social springtime gathering place where wood smoke competes with the maple steam, and the ‘one-upping’ stories compete with the sugaring chores.
Indigenous peoples were first to 'tap' into this springtime bounty and they shared their knowledge with the early settlers. In fact, March is called Siwkewikús in Mi’kmaq, the maple sugar month. Traditionally, they placed birch bark buckets at the foot of the tree. A slash made in the flesh of the tree with a stone tool or knife, and a sliver of wood or a reed inserted into the slash, drew out the sap so it dripped into the bark container.
The collected liquid was heated in a large hollowed-out log or birch tray by repeatedly adding hot rocks until it boiled and reached the syrup stage. When a drizzle on snow hardened to form taffy, it was ready to churn and cool into caked sugar for storage and transport. You can learn more about early maple syrup production and how it evolved on the Albert County Museum website.
Today, the introduction of plastic spiles and tubing has made gathering sap much easier for larger production. Trees can be tapped any time in the winter, thus avoiding the springtime rush. Small plastic tubes are attached to the spiles and run from tree to tree. The small tubes join into larger pipes and usually are laid out so the sap flows downhill to a collecting tank. Although syrup producers need to frequently check the lines for leaks and animal or weather damage, the daily emptying of buckets is no longer necessary.
But even with the advent of time-saving equipment, many still enjoy maple sugaring with the old methods.
The old and broken trees are cut and split for firewood, and the silver buckets are emptied by hand. And inside, you’ll find the folk stoking the fires, and breathing in the steam. They are the ones who enjoy the satisfaction of the work, tradition and camaraderie as much as the outcome.
We hope that they never go away.
For the health conscious concerned with the nutritional value: pure maple syrup contains calcium, manganese, phosphorus, magnesium and iron, and is an excellent source of potassium. It is equivalent calorie-wise to brown sugar (50 cal/ 15 ml) and also has trace amounts of vitamins and amino acids.
Maple Syrup Baked Beans
- 2 cups dried beans
- 1/2 lb salt pork or bacon cut in small pieces
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 1/2 cup molasses
- 1/4 cup New Brunswick Maple Syrup
- 2 tsp dry mustard
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp black pepper
Cover beans with cold water and let soak overnight. In morning, drain, then add more water and cook over low heat until the skins break if you blow on then (about 2 hours). Check frequently to ensure they do not go dry. Drain the beans, reserving the liquid. Alternate layers of beans, pork and onion in a crockpot. Mix remaining ingredients together with 2 cups of reserved bean liquid. Pour mixture over the beans, cover the crockpot and bake low at 300 °F for 5-6 hours. Halfway through, check consistency. Add more water or bean liquid if they appear dry. Uncover for last hour of baking to brown nicely.