I don’t know why as I sat here today, without a pancake or waffle in sight, I started thinking about maple syrup, but I did. So I decided to take a look at a bit of the history and intrigue surrounding this expensive and intriguing amber nectar.
It’s regularly at the centre of celebrity crash diets, entangled in legislation against fakery, and has archaeologists on both sides of the Atlantic arguing over it.
It seems that maple syrup is a celebrity of the food world, not to be confused with other more proletariat syrups. And, even though the shops are filled with alternatives like agave, the demand for maple syrup grows sharply every year despite its high price, so maybe we are all learning to adore it.
If we are then it is for good reason, there are poor substitutes and ‘maple flavour’ syrups, but there is no other real alternative to maple syrup. Agave is nice enough, but it’s a totally different beast, maple syrup has it’s own smooth texture and that distinctive taste which make it unique, but what is it, where does it come from, and how is it harvested?
You take a tree…
Maple syrup is obtained by extracting and then cooking the sweet-water sap of certain varieties of maple tree. The most commonly ‘tapped’ is the sugar maple found in the Southern states of Canada and the Northern states of the U.S.
To unravel the mysteries, we need to start with the mysterious sounding sweet-water sap. Maple syrup is 100% sweet-water sap. This is not the circulatory sap of the tree. It is different liquid which lives in the outer layers of the tree. It is so close to the surface that it will flow from any wound.
Farmers and hobbyists
Nowadays, maple syrup production is a small industry…. with a twist. Mostly practised, on a part-time basis, by Canadian and American “sugar-bush” farmers who are after extra revenues. The technique has changed very little: metal spouts and hanging galvanized metal buckets are still used.
Here comes the twist, since not much equipment is necessary and with the market price spiralling ever upwards, maple syrup harvesting is fast becoming a winter hobby for anyone. While researching this article, I found out that people were foraging sweet-water sap.
Take a small stand of maple trees, even one sugar maple in the back garden might suffice, a metal tap, a bucket, a good old fashion winter season and you should get gallons of sap.. Once the sap is collected, it is cooked on the stove or surprisingly….. in the microwave, to obtain the much desirable amber nectar.
Bear in mind that maple syrup is a pure product, made 100% from maple sap, hence the cost. At the other end of the spectrum, imitations often contains no more than 4%. Intrinsically, there is nothing wrong with these syrups, except that they are not maple syrup and often are so cleverly packaged that they look like the real deal.
Maple Syrup producers are hoping that the imitations will be cut short soon. In late 2011, Senators in Vermont, Maine and New York co-sponsored a bill which made it a felony to sell fake maple syrup as the real thing, increasing the penalties from one year to five years in prison.
The historical controversy
The question that divides archaeologists is a simple one: Who harvested the maple tree sap first? Indians or Colonists?”
At first, it seemed obvious that European settlers were the first to drain the precious liquid, applying a method still in use, called “tapping”. The method requires drilling a metal tap into the sugar maples and native Americans did not have iron.
But soon claims that the Indians knew of maple syrup came to light. A report written in 1634, by a Jesuit, Father Paul Le Jeune, was found. In his chronicles, Father Paul describes how members of the Micmac tribe of Ontario were ‘”eating” the shavings of bark of a certain tree.
Probably, not the best description for “tapping” but close enough to prick the curiosity of historians. Experimental archaeologists were called upon to elucidate the mystery. Without the existence of any remaining hard evidence, they set upon recreating ancient tapping techniques using tubes carved out of wood. They cooked the liquid in clay pots and it worked. Conclusion: Native Americans used natural means to harvest “Maple water” and they could well have cooked it too.
So, it would seem that we can safely conclude that both colonists and Natives Americans knew of the maple tree sap and understood the process which generates maple syrup. However, it is not only until sugar-craving Europeans stepped onto the scene, with their increasing demand for sweet loafs that the sap was exploited on a larger scale.
In 1670, the French were the first to find value in maple sugar shipping manufactured small loafs to the old continent. However, even by the 19th century when sugar was all the rage, maple syrup would account only for 5% of total sugar industry.
You can even live on it (maybe)
Not criminal, but described by some as deplorable is the promotion of the Maple Syrup diet. Made popular a decade ago by Beyonce, it is nothing more than a crash diet. A diet which if taken seriously, will see its users survive solely on a potion concocted with 20ml of maple syrup, 2 tablespoons of lemon, cayenne pepper and water, for as long as it takes or a maximum of 10 days. Anyone would loose weight at that rate….but at what cost?
Detoxes and cleanses have also become a bigger and bigger thing, and some of those are similar to the mapel syrup diet.
Has this diet/detox fad affected the price of maple syrup? Probably very little, is the answer. That is unless it had a big effect on the Asian market. Between 2009 and 2013, for example, both demand for and the price of maple syrup in Asia increased drastically, driving the global retail price up by 30%, it hasn’t continued to increase at the same speed but it’s never gone back down either.
Demand in the west where we love to pour it over pancakes has always been high, but this centuries old product is being granted a new lease of life in the East and all over the globe.