My late mother Bernice Ethelyn Crittenden on the family’s West Brome farm
Farming Can be a Sticky Situation Linda Knight Seccaspina
Maple syrup was just more than a sappy incident in Canada. It marks one of the most distinct eras in seasonable cuisine, and it was the first of the new and home-grown Canadian products. It has a tang of the woods and the open country, and somehow makes you think of spring flowers and the soft rain which rejuvenates the earth. It also paves the way for the rhubarb pie era which follows soon after. The rhubarb season in turn is succeeded by strawberries and cream, but that is another story altogether.
Early settlers in Canada learned about sugar maples from our First Nations. Various legends have existed through the ages to explain how maple syrup was discovered. One is that the head of a tribe threw a tomahawk at a tree, sap ran out and his wife boiled venison in the liquid. Another version holds that our First Nations stumbled on sap running from a broken maple branch.
Those from the past have been known to declare that the best syrup was made in the “old days”. It was when the sap was boiled in iron kettles, over open fires, the product retained a furtive flavour of sugary bliss and charred wood. Today the syrup is made in patent contraptions with syphons and spigots, often boiled over coal fires, and protected from smoke in the process. The business may be less romantic than in the past, but the quality of the syrup is even higher.
My great grandfather Arthur Crittenden had some fine maples on his West Brome farm and being told about the value of the maple for the making of sugar, he decided to try sugar making. Unfortunately, he had never studied the effects of evaporation and thought the boiling process would be helped by keeping the kettles closely covered.
Day after day he boiled away and expected the sugar to boil at the bottom of the kettles. Evaporation was partially secured by the steam raising the covers of the kettles and then the contents grew gradually sweeter. Fresh sap was constantly supplied and though the sugar was hoped for – none ever appeared. As they say ”sugar makers don’t die- they just evaporate”. It never dawned on him that to get the sugary results he must stop putting in sap and boil it all down to a certain consistency. He was about to give up until someone saved the day. Some business brought a member of the family forty miles to visit from home. When he witnessed the operation he solved my great grandfather’s mystery almost immediately. Maple sugar was soon produced and my ancestors finally feasted on the delicious product. He told anyone who would listen that he was thankful for a tree so useful in the wilderness.
However, this giant crop of maple trees became a sticky situation and grew where he intended to clear the land for his crops. All other kinds of trees were removed and the corn and potatoes were planted beneath the sturdy sugar maples. However, the ample foliage of their borad limbs was so shaded and it actually dwarfed the growing crops beneath. My great grandfather became convinced the the same ground could not yield at the same time two such crops. With feelings lacerated in a two fold sense his beloved maples were cut down and in their falling so smashed the corn and potatoes. In the end little of either was harvested and thus his first season was almost a loss.
The next season Arthur did well with a new crop on the fully cleared land, but once again he did not have much luck. At the far side of the newly planted field was a thick bush. He looked at that bush for protection for his crop and did not put any fence on that side. He failed to realize that a bush will keep out much of the sun but won’t keep out wandering animals.
In the heat of the summer a large flock of neighbours’ cattle charged through the bush and invaded the unfenced clearing. The final result was painful. As he viewed the damage to his crops he wondered if he should still be a farmer. That summer a fence was built and the following year a crop was grown with success without interference from maple trees or cattle.
I had no idea that forty gallons of sap are needed to make one gallon of syrup, and one barrel of maple syrup is worth more than 30 times of a barrel of crude oil. I often wonder if my great grandfather ever grew back those maple trees. You have to admit the early farmers were outstanding in their field, and I have always been proud to have had farmers in my lineage. I would smile each time my father told me to close the door properly as I wasn’t raised in a barn. I always told him he had had it wrong, as I’ve never judged anyone by their relatives, and what goes on in the barn stays in the barn!
See you next week!
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