Saturday, March 31, 2012

Boiling the Sap: A Cautionary Tale

If you read yesterday’s post (you can scroll down to find it, since A Story of Sap Flowing is a necessary precedent to boiling the sap), you will know that I built a fire and started to boil the sap I had collected.  If you are wondering about the cautionary aspect of this tale, we are all right so far – the rocks were piled high enough around the fire, and even with a pretty good wind blowing (east the first day, west the second) I wasn’t worried about the fire getting out of control.

It was a good fire, and I was able to burn a fair bit of the pine that was around to keep the pot on the boil, and midway through the second day I was down from 20 litres of sap in my containers to 10 litres in the pot.  And it was a great fire, as you can see, for cooking Smokies on a skewer and then eating them on the deck.  We even went away for an hour to photograph crows and got our neighbor, who was outside anyway, to keep an eye on the fire while we were gone so there was no danger from that. 

I switched from pine to maple, which burned longer and gave a good heat, and you could have seen me at ten that night still tending my fire and still checking the boil of my sap, and by the time I turned in we were down under 5 litres, developing a good colour, and giving off a sweet smoky maple syrup smell.  I went to sleep happy.

The next morning I made the first serious error: I put the boiled down sap into our large Paderno pot, brought it in, and turned on the stove.  I was, however, properly cautious.  I put the stovetop vent on high, and because it was a warm enough day, I opened a couple of doors to keep a good breeze through the kitchen.  So far, so good.  I looked up the instructions again right here (you will note if you check it out that the site is named, somewhat ironically in my case, greatdreams), and then got out my candy thermometer and checked the temperature.  Still OK.

The sap boiled down and I reduced the heat.  It was looking good.  I had my bottles out with a funnel and a cloth to pour my syrup through.  I checked the temperature again, and it was still fine.  Then I made my first big mistake – I went upstairs to send a fax.

This is a tricky operation in our house because you have to disconnect the phone, pull the printer stand as far across the room as the power cord will let it, pull the phone line over to connect to the printer, dial the number, and let it go.  It was busy the first time.  I tried again, and it connected.  I waited for the transmission to finish.  Then I waited for my transmission report.  Finally I went back downstairs.

My second big mistake had been not to turn the heat right down when I left the pot.  I had spent two days outdoors working to keep the thing boiling over the fire, and it never occurred to me to turn it down now.  So I came into a kitchen filled with smoke.  My sap had turned to syrup, then boiled over, then burned.  There was a blackened sticky mess all around the burner, and the pot was filled with carbon ash, like burned marshmallow.

I turned off the burner, took the smoke alarm and the pot outside, and scooped about three tablespoons of maple syrup from the stove top and put it in a tiny jar.  It tasted really good, and over the next couple of days as I worked for hours to clean up my messes and the smell of burnt sugar grew fainter in the kitchen, I gave myself a tiny taste now and again to remind me of what might have been.

So if you read a news story like this one about the coming maple syrup shortage, you will know that besides the weather, I too am part of the problem.  And the caution is this: stay close to your pot and pay close attention, because that critical maple syrup moment  can come and go pretty quickly, and there's no going back if you miss it.

Friday, March 30, 2012

A Story of Sap Flowing

It is the end of March and the sap has pretty much stopped flowing, but earlier in the month it was abundant.  In fact, on March 8, when it was 10 degrees and sunny after a solidly cold night, I collected about eight litres from the two maples I tapped this year, better than the 2 degrees and half a litre I collected the day before.

The trees are really two separate trunks of a substantial maple clump that grows next to the small stream that flows from the pond next to our branch of Stanbrae Road (though it is a pond only some of the time – as A., the eldest of my granddaughters, wisely informed me one day at the age of five, “It’s a swamp, Rogie.”).  One of the trees has a thick yellow nylon rope with a thumb knot in the end of it hanging down over the stream, and A. has always enjoyed grabbing it and swinging over the water (or the rocks, when my “pond” is once again a swamp). At any rate, it has been spring throughout March, the stream has been flowing from the pond, I have worn my Bogs to step across to the trees, and the sap has been flowing fairly well.

I drilled the trees, hammered in the two spiles, and hung up my President’s Choice cranberry juice containers to catch the sap.  On a good day I might empty them several times into the 10-litre container I kept there, and sometimes there was even an overflow of my precious sap running down the maple trunk.  On a not so good day, I might not get much more than a few flies in the containers checking out the sweetness in there.

I didn’t have permission to boil my sap down inside the house and didn’t want to use the propane cylinders for the little Coleman (like I did two years ago), so I bought a big pot at the Sally Ann and built up my outdoor fireplace to accommodate a grille for the boiling.

The ratio of sap to syrup is 40:1, so the 20 litres of sap I had collected should be good for half a litre of my own Stanbrae Road maple syrup.  They say it takes 15 hours to boil your sap down, so I got my fire started and kept on feeding it, getting myself, my jacket, and my jeans pretty smoky in the process.

The sap started to boil, and I kept topping up the pot, feeling a pleasant satisfaction as my sap supply reduced and what was in the pot was beginning to show some colour.

I will stop there in the telling of this ultimately cautionary tale to inform you that the sharply bright first quarter moon is high in our black sky tonight, reflecting pinpoints of white light on the car’s roof and hood.  And I will continue the tale in my next post.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Last Day of our Brief Interlude of Summer

This is an image of the harbour today.  The wind is NNW 45 km/h, gusting to 58.  The temperature is 10 degrees.  Tonight it will go down to minus 5, and the high tomorrow is 7.  On Tuesday of next week, the forecast high is zero and we may have snow flurries.  All of that is appropriate because it is, after all, still March here in Ferguson’s Cove.  Spring did arrive last Tuesday, but we all know that that just means equal amounts of day and night and no promises of anything more.  So a clear and not too cold day with strong winds out of the north is pretty much par for the course for us right about now.

Today is not a bad day to be outdoors, especially if you are in the sun and out of the wind, but it’s nothing like yesterday, the last day of our brief interlude of summer.  Environment Canada will tell you that yesterday was not normal.  If you care to check there, you will see that our normal maximum for March 22 is 5 degrees, and the normal minimum is -4.  And if you check yesterday’s actual readings, you will see a maximum of 27.2 degrees and a minimum (last night up until midnight) of 11.5 degrees (if you’re still stuck in Fahrenheit readings, that means it was 81 at the hottest part of the day and dropped to 53 at night).  It was indeed an interlude of summer.

I don’t have images of yesterday because a camera cannot tell you what the air feels like, and it does still look like early spring here, with a slight reddening of the ends of the birch branches, the beginning bulges of red maple flowers, and the lawn doing its level best to show its true colours.  The only sure sign of that summer warm you can see today is the sudden growth of green shoots in the chives, as if they were waiting for just a hint of encouragement from the weather, and the tulips and daffodils pushing up, but that couldn’t tell you what yesterday, and the two days before, felt like.

Here are some words to help you imagine our brief interlude of summer:

  • lunch and supper on the back deck, me in a t-shirt and shorts and still finding it hot;  
  • walking in bare feet in the evening and feeling the radiant heat from the stones in our walkway;   
  • driving with the car windows wide open; 
  • seeing my students in last night’s class in their short shorts, legs still white from winter;   
  • noticing the air conditioning on in the Superstore; 
  • opening our doors and windows to cool the house off; 
  • seeing a guy walking on Herring Cove Road with no shirt on and a newly sunburnt back;   
  • driving by the little waterfall coming out of Chocolate Lake and thinking we could maybe swim there; 
  • walking out to the car under black night sky and bright stars and being reminded of summer nights in Greece.
The list could go on because the interlude of summer was crazy, but now it’s over.  We’re dropping back towards normal, which is good.  As Lol said, If we keep on having weather like this, we’ll be sure to have bad forest fires.  And it doesn’t have to be up in the twenties for me to love the warmth of the sun in the blue skies of March; those hotter, whiter skies of high summer will come, but I’m content to wait for them and to savour these interludes, long or short, whenever they do happen.

Carpe diem, and don't forget your sunscreen!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

and the snow melts even as it falls

First thing yesterday morning, Monday, there was light snow that had fallen in the night covering the ground and resting on the top edges of twigs and branches and evergreen needles (though none of these really have edges) because there was no wind to speak of.  I like the old-fashioned, perhaps rural, feel of that last phrase.  “To speak of” is more lyrical to my mind and ear than “worth mentioning” or some equivalent phrase; in fact, “no wind” is something that we do often speak of, because wind is something that is very often part of our landscape and seascape here.  So there was no wind to speak of, which is worth mentioning, and the snow lay gently, even delicately, balanced on twigs and branches and needles and covering the ground.  It was a pretty sight.

About mid-morning it started to snow again, lightly but steadily, with just enough breeze to make it drift across the window at an attractive angle before it landed.  It was a wintry wonderland scene, even though I knew the temperature would rise and the snow would likely melt pretty soon. 

It reminded me of a long poem I wrote decades ago that contains the following lines:

and the snow melts even as it falls.

A friend, who was much older than I,
told me, It is always thus.

My good older friend always spoke that way, a relic perhaps of the home in the Edwardian English countryside she grew up in, or perhaps of her years of study at the Sorbonne, or both.  She was usually right, and we didn’t often disagree, certainly not when she said that.  I like that writing about the snowfall made me think of her, especially on this late winter night.

I also like to think of another “old good friend”, though I never did meet him; in fact, he died on March 4, 1963, two days after my 18th birthday, and though his name was on my horizon back then, I had no real knowledge at that point of the profound impact he would have on my life and my writing.  He was, of course, the good physician, Dr. Williams, whose work I ended up exploring in some considerable detail and end up revisiting every now and again, such as when this showed up as yesterday’s Poem-A-Day.

Spring Storm
by William Carlos Williams

The sky has given over
its bitterness.
Out of the dark change
all day long
rain falls and falls
as if it would never end.
Still the snow keeps
its hold on the ground.
But water, water
from a thousand runnels!
It collects swiftly,
dappled with black
cuts a way for itself
through green ice in the gutters.
Drop after drop it falls
from the withered grass-stems
of the overhanging embankment.

I love the way he always attended to the physical details of the ordinary and that an early spring storm could bring his attention and his craft to the making of that fine small poem.

And then there was his friend Kreymborg’s tribute, which arrived in my inbox the day before, on the anniversary of Williams' death:

To W.C.W. M.D.
by Alfred Kreymborg

There has been
Another death.
This time
I bring it to you.
You are kind,
You know
How to lower
I ask only
That the rope
Isn't silk,
(Silk doesn't break)
Nor thread,
(Thread does.)
If it lifts
And lowers
Common things,
It will do.

That’s all really – we had a gentle snowfall, I was reminded of my good friend Anne as I wrote this post, and while I was getting ready to tap a couple of maple trees this afternoon, I took a photo of the small brook, running after our last “spring storm”. 

And, of course, there was a lovely pair of poems.

Friday, March 2, 2012

They say it’s your birthday

And once again it is. The evidence began early this morning when I looked at my g-mail and found that friends from earlier time zones had started sending me greetings and good wishes through Facebook.  Of course I did know it was my birthday and had seen a reminder last weekend in St. Catharine’s; namely, an invitation on the fridge to Levi’s 5th birthday, which happens today and is being celebrated tomorrow, and which I know that the amazing M. will attend.  Shortly after I started the computer the phone rang, a call from St. Catharine’s with JE and M. singing Happy Birthday to me twice, first the slow version, then in quick time, a great start to the day.

Our house has systems and there are related chores, like reviving the fire in the stove and bringing more wood in from the shed, making the morning tea, looking at the bird feeders, checking the colour of the harbour (blue-grey this morning) and the direction of the wind (shifted from yesterday’s NE to NNE), and assessing how much snow fell in the night.  I am not the sort of person who easily stays in bed while others start the day and cater to my needs; I’d rather be the one who gets up and actually does these things, getting my day started through being active, and I’m especially happy to do that on my birthday.

There were many treats today.  Here are some:
  • the sound of a song sparrow when I went to get wood, a song that started a few days ago, a harbinger of spring 
  • a gang of white-throated sparrows that came to feed, one on each of the feeders, the rest picking around in the new snow for the seeds that got knocked down, ten of these little beauties in all 
  •  a seagull against the grey sky, belly white like the snow, back grey like the clouds, calling as it glided on the crest of the wind 
  •  breakfast by the dining room windows with Lorraine and our daughter E. and talk of old times, birthdays past, and the vagaries of our lives 
  • a grey-white splash on the window next to me that I took to be a good luck birthday wish from the seagull (and that I cleaned off the glass a little later with hot water, sponge and squeegee, and a very long extensible pole) 
  • our very first ski of this nonexistent winter over at York Redoubt, feeling the stretch in my arms and legs and listening to the swish of the skis through the snow, especially when I hit the right spot on the trail for a long stride, a long glide, and the elation of flying past the stone walls and cold trees 
  • doing a short edit for JE and then meeting a graduate student in education to work with her on an assignment that explored belonging, group relations, and creativity 
  • joining E. at the Fireside for drinks, martinis and margarita, in comfy chairs next to the fire, and enjoying the sweet taste of lobster cake snacks 
  • then having dinner with her at Suzuki (formerly Doraku) with dragon roll, rainbow roll, other great rolls, our first sushi pizza, gensai tea, and a large bottle of Kirin Ichiban beer to share 
  • the chance to reflect on the people I know through the good wishes they keep on sending to help me celebrate this day 
  • and, finally, the chance to look back on the day, remember it all with pleasure, and have the time to write this, my 156th blog post since I started this endeavour, exactly three years ago today
It was a treat all the way and all the day – I hope Lou Reed (now 68) and Levi (now five) had days that were just as good!  They say it’s your birthday, and it is, today!  Happy birthdays to you too.