If there was a season, even just intuitively for organic maple syrup, this would be it. Christmas is over, but frost still tinges the windows. You need something comforting and sweet to make weekend mornings feel special, and waffles or pancakes drizzled with organic maple syrup seems like just the thing.
But did you know that the seasonality of maple syrup is far more complicated than when we like to enjoy this naturally occurring sweet?
To find out more, we spoke with Arnold Coombs of Coombs Family Farms in Brattleboro, Vermont, and Brian Allaway of Acadian Maple in Upper Tantallon, Nova Scotia. Each of these maple masters shared some secrets of the trade, including their thoughts on how great maple syrup should be used and how much Mother Nature has to say for how each year's syrup turns out.
How Do You Become a Maple Maker?
Image: Maple syrup from Shutterstock
Making and manufacturing maple syrup isn't an interest that blooms out of nowhere. In the case of both Arnold and Brian, sugar maple tapping is a family affair.
"I grew up in a maple family," Arnold says. "It’s all that my parents and grandparents did. We made syrup, maple sugar, maple candy and sold it throughout the Northeast. So as a kid, I didn’t have a choice about being around it. At the dinner table, it’s what we talked about then us kids would go help load trucks for the next day’s deliveries. I liked being around it. Maple is addictive."
That seems like reason enough to get into the maple trade. Brian has a similar story, starting Acadian Maple Products in 1982 as a backyard hobby after learning to make maple syrup from his father in Pictou County, Nova Scotia. "Fast forward to 1982, (Brian) did the same thing with his children in Tantallon, just outside Halifax," according to the company. "In this first year too much maple syrup was produced and it was sold to a local retailer. In succeeding years more syrup was produced but the real strength of the company was the marketing of the product. In 2002, William, son of the owners, finished his university studies and joined the company on a full time basis." An interest, a passion and a lifestyle that passes from father to son -- it's no surprise that the know-how of maple syrup making is second nature to these maple veterans.
How is Maple Used?
Image: M. Rehemtulla
Pancakes, waffles, and that's about it... right? Wrong! Maple as a natural sweetener can be used in many ways, as our experts are well aware -- and it's not always in syrup form.
One of Arnold's favorite maple products to use is maple sugar, a product that's both tasty and traditional. "It’s great in so many recipes and I love the history of it. The fact that Native Americans were making it long before the settlers arrived."
Brian agrees. "Two of my favorite maple products are maple butter and maple sugar," says Brian. "Picture this – Sunday morning, a toasted bagel with maple butter, a fresh pot of coffee, the newspaper and a fire in the fireplace. (The only thing missing is the 'Do not disturb' sign on the door)."
Of course, maple doesn't have to be restricted to the breakfast table. One of Arnold's favorite ways to put maple syrup on the dinner table is with his very own maple glazed salmon recipe.
"It’s so easy and tasty," says Arnold. "I mix some maple syrup with soy sauce, ginger and whatever spices I’m in the mood for at that time (cayenne, rosemary, turmeric). I pour it all in a Ziploc bag, add the salmon and let it sit a little while. I turn it a few times so it’s coated well. Then it’s on the grill. It doesn’t take long and it’s delicious."
Brian has some savory recipes up his sleeve as well. "I love maple in many things but some of my favorite recipes include, maple glazed ham, maple sticky buns, maple glazed carrots, maple glazed salmon and maple baked beans."
Is Maple Healthy?
When you look at the calorie content of maple sugar or maple syrup, you may be convinced that it's just as bad for you as refined sugar, something to be avoided in favor of lower-calorie sweeteners like agave syrup or coconut palm sugar. But that's far from being the case. Maple syrup boasts the same low glycemic index as some of your other favorite sweeteners. "It's more nutritious than other sugars and high in antioxidants," Arnold says.
"In our house we substitute white sugar with maple sugar all the time," says Brian. "Two simple reasons. It is better for you (still has all the nutrients that are lacking in white sugar), and it tastes better."
"It is unrefined so still contains all the nutritional value," he continues. "Research has shown that maple syrup and maple sugar has a higher nutritional value than all other common sweeteners such as corn syrup, honey, brown sugar and white sugar."
Indeed, maple syrup contains considerably more manganese, riboflavin, zinc, magnesium, calcium and potassium per serving for approximately equivalent calories.
Is Maple an Artisanal Product?
Image: Brian Allaway
When you think about it, is it really possible for a product that's so all-natural to be considered artisanal? Of course, as long as you let Mother Nature be considered one of the artisans! Like with wine or honey, much of the artisan nature of maple syrup is dependent on terroir. "If you could compare syrups from different regions side by side, you’d detect very subtle differences. I couldn’t say one is better then the other, just slightly different," says Arnold.
Brian agrees. "There can be a difference in taste between the different areas where maple is produced and the terroir can make a difference," he says. "Even within an area like a state or province the taste can be different."
That being said, organic maple syrup doesn't change much as far as flavor is concerned, according to Arnold, whose company sells both organic and pure maple syrup. "Certified organic syrup assures the consumer that the product meets the organic standards but the flavor is not affected," he says.
But an artisan maple syrup doesn't just boil down to terroir. "A maple producer’s syrup will also change flavor from the beginning of the season to the end of the season," says Brian. And recent studies have shown that this year will be a particularly exceptional year for maple.
Of course, only time will tell, something that no one knows better than the experts, who have a hand in yearly production. "If the research is correct, the sugar content of the sap will be a bit higher than in a seed year," Arnold says. "Mother Nature however, decides how much sap we will get by giving us freezing nights followed by warm days. If we don’t get that weather combination, we won’t have enough of the “sweeter” sap to make much syrup."
"There are many signs in nature that producers use to determine whether it will be a good season or not," Brian says. "However, a good old fashion winter where things are normal like temperatures, snow cover and other variables usually lead to a normal sap flow in the spring. One would think that last year would have been good, however it was so cold that the sap came late so production was down in many areas. To be truthful I have given up trying to predict and now always say, ask me at the end of April and I will tell you what the season was like."
In the meantime, why not use some of last year's syrup to add sweetness and richness to some of your favorite recipes?Here are a few of our favorites, to get you started:
- Breakfast Sausage with Maple and Fennel
- The Ultimate Vegan Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe with Maple and Coconut Oil
- Sweet and Spicy Maple Lemon Drop
- Grilled Sweet Potato Steaks with Maple Pecan Butter
- Early Morning Pumpkin Maple Oatmeal
- Organic Vanilla-Cured Pork Loin with Roasted Turnips in a Maple Vanilla Sauce
- Vegan Sweet Potato Gratin Recipe with Coconut Milk
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Top Image: Pancakes from Shutterstock