Maple Sugar: The biography of the new world’s first sweetening agent.
Maple sugar is anointed as the New World’s first natural sweetener. Supposedly, before the European settlers arrived with the honeybee to make honey, native Americans settled to the North east were using sugar from the sugar maple trees each spring. In these camps an indigenous a sweetener rich in nutrients and minerals was produced.
Native folk lore has several versions of how it was discovered. One of the popular legends says an Iroquois chief threw his tomahawk into a maple tree. When he retrieved it, he noticed sap oozing out from the cut in the tree. He collected some and carried it home to his wife who added it to the meat she was cooking. The sweet maple flavor is said to have won their hearts and find its way into the world of food.
The process employed to make sugar was rustic in comparison to modern techniques. Hollowed out logs, heated rocks for evaporating the sap, and handmade containers were used to collect the sap as well as store the maple sugar. Later several tribes boiled the sap till it crystallized deriving maple sugar. This was mostly because the syrup was harder to store.
Native Americans considered Maple sugar to be valuable food commodity, not really knowing the scientific context. Today we know it has approximately 89 percent sucrose, followed by fructose and glucose. Maple sugar is rich in potassium and calcium. This is subject to the source. Other minerals include magnesium, phosphorous, manganese, malic acids, citric acids and amino acids.
Many recipes in old New England cookbooks call for “Indian sugar,” but few modern cooks have ever heard about it. Maple farmers sell granulated maple sugar directly to consumers under different names, such as maple powder, maple sprinkles or maple granules.
The speculated reason behind maple sugar’s dwindling popularity and almost disappearance from the American culture is said to be the entry of white sugar. White sugar was cheap and was produced by slave camps in the West Indies. In a bid to keep America self-sufficient in terms of sugar and to avoid reliance on the import of cane or beet sugar from other countries, Thomas Jefferson, brought up the native maple sugar tree. Jefferson in 1808 wrote, “I have never seen a reason why every farmer should not have a sugar orchard, as well as an apple orchard.” Inspite of the fact that cane sugar was selling like hot cakes in comparison to maple sugar, the art of procuring maple sugar was preserved in American tradition.
The mud season harvest brings along with it several traditions founded over the years. One of these traditions is the very popular “sugar on snow.” People of all walks and ages, await the new supply of maple syrup. It is served hot directly on packed snow or finely shaved ice. What a lovely delicious treat!
The process of making cuts on Maple sugar trees is called tapping. The trees are tapped in early spring to make the most of the conditions of alternating freezing and thawing. Most maple farmers collect only a few buckets of sap. The more big scale operations use food-grade plastic tubing.
After the sap is collected it is transported to sugarhouses where it is finally turned to Maple sugar.