Peering over a very satisfyingly buttery croissant at my favorite bake shop, I saw a curious man enter quite purposefully, carrying a jug filled with an amber liquid. Something about this struck me as somewhat odd. Ok… so, it was syrup. We’ve all seen syrup in a syrup jug. No biggie, right?
The owner’s face lit up and she greeted the man with outstretched arms but not towards him. She was honing in on the glass bottle of syrup held tightly in his hands. I thought that perhaps he had done her a favor, running out to fetch a necessary ingredient just in the nick of time. I decided to eaves-drop which, given the size of the space, was quite easy. I overheard the owner’s excitement in having received this seemingly long-awaited parcel. The man smiled, explaining that he had “cooked down” 3 gallons and how he had to wait until he got it to the right consistency. The owner ran in the back with some haste, no doubt to stash her “stuff” from prying eyes and eavesdropping ears.
All at once: visions of a serious syrup syndicate at work, street level pushers of golden, light amber and dark amber with a full flavor, walking the aisle of our grocery stores throwin’ shade at Mrs. Butterworth and Hungry Jack — hoards of undercover “Vermonters” and “Mainers” bumping into us “casually” in the check-out line and relieving us of that abominable caramel colored, high fructose corn syrup that defiles pancakes and french toast all over the county.
After being offered his choice of baked good, in gratitude, the man sat to enjoy it. I watched for a minute and then hailed the owner over to inquire. She told me his name was Tim McGee and that he makes his own maple syrup, dropping a jug or two off to her during the season. “So… he has a patch of trees out in the woods somewhere?” I thought. But no, as I found out, not in this case.
I boldly went over to where Tim was sitting and, excusing my eavesdropping, dove right in with questions. He told me about his maple sugar enterprise with such passion, it was almost obligatory to get caught up. He gave me his phone number and later we set up a time to meet.
On an overcast Thursday, I turned the corner on a street in Ewing that could have been a street anywhere. The ubiquitous beat of suburban life was audible and visible, reminding me that the constant din tends to numb us to the magic all around. I parked across the street from his home and, upon exiting my car, looked up and saw a thick, majestic and deliberately proud tree, stretching its branches just a bit further towards heaven than the other trees on the block. This must be it. This must be the source of the golden treasure encapsulated in the syrup jug. Tim cheerfully greeted my son and me outside his home, shaking our hands even as I was stealing glances at the towering tree shadowing his house.
“It’s a silver maple. You can extract sap to make syrup from any American maple tree except the Japanese maple,” he informed me. Clearly, it’s not only thick moustached guys in red flannel shirts and Timberland boots running the syrup cartel.
We walked through a modest, quaint home and outside to a small backyard. “There it is,” Tim said pointing to the towering silver maple posturing above us and the only obvious choice in the yard. Seeing the base of this tree, broad with deep crevices meandering through the bark gave me the sense that it was rather old and, not being an arborist by any measure, I thought it could easily be on the one hundred side of seventy-five.
“The season for making syrup can run anywhere from three days two to three months.” That seemed like quite a spread but Tim went on the explain that the sap only runs when the winter days are above 32-degrees and the nights go down to below freezing. “The sap is a clear liquid like spring water with a little sugar in it. If it’s running well, I can get 5 gallons of sap in a day,” McGee informed me.
So, where does a semi-retired English professor with a PhD. in Rhetoric, who specializes in Language Arts and Artificial Intelligence, learn to tap for sap?
“I googled it!” he proclaimed enthusiastically. “A coworker of mine was telling us how she was making her own maple syrup from a tree in her yard. I had this big beautiful tree in my yard and wondered if I could do the same thing.” After searching the internet, McGee received an instruction book and all the implements he needed to make the infamous “log cabin” syrup taste like WD40.
Breaking out a spike, McGee showed me how he inserts it into the trunk of the tree. “You have to angle it up,” he showed me, mimicking how it is done and showing me the places where the spike had been inserted. “The window, like I told you before, is small. The freezing and thawing cycle is key and it is what creates the flow. The longer the cycle, the longer the season. When trees start to bud, the sap quality goes down and so does the taste of the syrup. When temperatures rise and stay above freezing the the sap gets milky.” So I learned the trees store this starch, which turns into this sugary substance which is the sap.
Now…we cook. I saw the shed out back and knew that that was where all the magic happened and where Tim turned into a sweeter, legal version of Walter White. I pictured him sweating and cooking down vats of sap into endless syrup jugs before the next day when the “handlers” would come and pick up their supply, while his wife Suzanna tried to make everything look as normal as possible while throwing the DEA off the scent. McGee gave a slight chuckle at my imaginative scenario while letting me know that it was a much less colorful undertaking.
“I don’t cook the sap down in the shed, I do it right here,” he said, pointing to a small outdoor fireplace that looked more Davy Crockett then Pablo Escobar. Supported by cinder blocks and what looked like an old grill grate, you could see that there was some serious cooking going on here late in the midnight hour. “I do 95% of my reduction outside,” McGee, a 20 year resident of the area informed me.
“I learned the hard way, after I reduced the sap inside the house and ended up with a sticky film covering the walls. The steam that the reducing process generates contains sugar and, with a dog and a cat around, furry walls was not the design choice I was going for!”
He showed me the black and white speckled roasting pan that he uses to reduce the sap, which many of us would recognize as the old familiar oval pan mom used back in the day to cook the Thanksgiving turkey in.
“It can take hours to cook the sap down, depending on how much you have. But you have to be careful to not wait too long to get the cook going. If you wait too long, you end up with a tacky, almost cement like substance that has to be thrown out,” he added.
Tim continued my crash course on how to milk a maple tree, filling my mind with numbers, candy thermometers, timing and methods to avoid the Feds. I was getting antsy for a taste of the good stuff. We went inside and Tim produced three different jars of syrup, all of them with slightly different hues and, based on what I just learned, very different tastes. The lightest one, the “golden,” was smooth and mellow tasting — what most of us would be familiar with but Aunt Jemima’s never tasted so much like…home.
“I found that plain coffee filters work fine as strainers,” Tim added matter-of-factly.
The next jar was slightly darker, “amber” colored, and had a bit more rustic flavor but just a bit. I had my eye on the last jar, a squat wide jar of dark deliciousness. Dipping my spoon in, I could see that the syrup inside immediately obscured the silvery shine of the spoon. The robust flavor announced itself letting my taste buds know that it was nothing like its tamer kin. I have had dark syrups before and really do enjoy them much more but this one had an especially woody taste, slightly floral but definitely more earthy. We brought out a store brand, Carey’s 100% Pure Maple Syrup, for a little comparison. Not even close — like the difference between Barry Manilow and Barry White.
“Sometimes when I go to IHOP,” McGee slyly informs me, “I sneak in my own syrup.” And I could taste why.
Tim McGee doesn’t sell his product but there are a few places you can buy locally sourced maple syrup. The Howell Living Farm is one of them. It may be a bit pricey but it is well worth it here: http://www.howellfarm.org/cal.aspx. Yum it up. Tell all your friends.