Like a fine wine, place is part of syrup story
April 7, 2023
It's been a long wait for sugarbush time. The sap flows when warm days follow cold nights, and with the arrival of the spring equinox, we're there. Sap flows when the pressure inside the tree is greater than the external atmospheric pressure.
Bruce and Tawny Savage welcomed the Fond du Lac Reservation Historical Society and the Carlton County Historical Society to Spirit Lake Native Farms a few weeks ago, in the midst of yet another snowstorm, to learn about taking care of the trees, stringing tubing, tapping and measuring sugar content, collecting, boiling, evaporating, bottling, labeling and selling.
Their sugarhouse is dominated by its huge evaporator. To ensure the highest quality, maple syrup needs to be processed as soon as possible each day the sap runs. When the flow is really fast, Bruce loads wood into the front end every 15 minutes, night and day. Flames are drawn along the underside of the pan, heating and boiling sap along the way. About a cord of wood will boil down 800 gallons of sap into maple syrup.
By the time European and American settlers arrived here, the process of making maple syrup and maple sugar had been perfected by our Anishinaabe neighbors. Shallow troughs were carved out of bark and sap was collected in birch baskets, which were left out to freeze. The ice was then removed, leaving the thick syrup behind. Then the syrup was carefully boiled down to sugar. In 1836, maple sugar sold for 7 to 8 cents per pound.
The Fond du Lac Reservation Historical Society leaders Sharon Shuck and Louana Johnson presented the Carlton County Historical Society with birch bark sap gathering baskets. You can see them and purchase syrup from Spirit Lake Native Farms at the exhibit "Sharing Traditions: Sugar-Bushing and Wild Ricing" at the CCHS building located at 406 Cloquet Ave. in Cloquet.
The taste and aroma of maple syrup - just like wine, beer, honey, chocolate and coffee - is affected by its terroir, or soil, water, air and weather conditions. A map of maple (with this story online) describes the complexity. Bruce told us many people do not want any acorn to foul the maple taste, so they prefer syrup from our rocky region and the North Atlantic coastal provinces of Canada where the soil supports maples but not oak trees.
Spirit Lake Native Farms' evaporator allows the syrup to retain its woodiness and produces a more caramelized flavor. Many cooks think syrup from late in the season is better because the maple taste is stronger. But it can't be too late, because budding makes for an unpalatable flavor.
The first time I heard the word "terroir" was when I visited La Reine des Érables ("the queen of the maples" in French) one spring about 15 years ago. This baked beans recipe comes from Gaston and d'Antoinette Bergeron, proprietors of the now-shuttered sugarhouse and bistro in St. Wenceslas, Quebec. I used Spirit Lake Native Farms' maple syrup from 2022, and it gave a deep and intense flavor to the dish, perfect for this time of year.
I wonder if, just as our long winters call for a mojakka cookoff, maybe the arrival of spring calls for a maple syrup throwdown.
Find out more about Spirit Lake Native Farm at https://www.bestprosintown.com/mn/sawyer/spirit-lake-native-farm-/.
If you would like to tell your local food story, call Emily at the Oldenburg House, 218-384-4835.
Queen of the Maples Baked Beans
2 cups (473 ml) dried navy beans
1/2 cup (118 ml) onion, diced
4 slices bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces
1/2 cup (118 ml) maple syrup, plus an additional ½ cup added near the end of baking
1/4 cup (59 ml) fancy molasses (not blackstrap)
1 teaspoon dry mustard powder, or 1 tablespoon yellow prepared mustard
1 teaspoon fine salt
2 cups (473 ml) hot water, plus more as needed while baking
The night before baking: In a large bowl, add 6 cups of cold water and 2 cups of dried navy beans. Soak overnight, uncovered.
Day of baking: Drain beans and place into a large pot. Add 6 cups of fresh water so that the beans are covered by about 2 inches of water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce heat for a gentle simmer.
• Simmer the beans until just tender but not mushy, about 40-55 minutes.
• Preheat the oven to 325 F.
• Drain beans and run them under cold water to stop the cooking process.
• Put the beans into a Dutch oven. Scatter the onion and bacon on top of the beans.
• Stir together the 1/2 cup maple syrup, molasses, mustard and salt. Pour over the beans. Add the 2 cups of hot water and stir gently to combine.
• Cover the pot and bake for 4 hours, stirring periodically and adding water if necessary.
• Add the remaining 1/2 cup of maple syrup and gently stir. Return to the oven and bake, unvovered, for about 30 minutes. The beans will thicken a bit further as they rest after coming out of the oven.
• Let stand, uncovered for 10-15 minutes before serving.