Homemade maple syrup starts with a borehole. Tom drilled this one on the south side of one of his trees because those on the "sunny south" side are usually the most productive.
PHOTO: TOM AND CAROLE HODGES
Folks who reside in the frozen North don't have a monopoly on homemade maple syrup. My wife and I live in Arkansas, and we've tapped our red maples (Acer rubrum) and sugar maples for the past few years. Of course, the short Ozark "sap season" usually limits our production to about a gallon of syrup a winter, but with the pure Vermont product priced as high as $7.50 a quart, we feel well paid for the pleasant time we spend in the woods.
In early February (or whenever the weather is right) I bore a 1/4"diameter, 3"- to 4"-deep hole, slanted upward, into the south side of each of our nine trees. Hollowed-out staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) or elderberry (genus Sambucus) stems about six inches long are next hammered into the holes to serve as spigots. I then drive two nails into every tree, slightly above and to both sides of each spigot, and hang on a gallon jug. We empty the sap from these collectors into storage containers on a daily basis (a sudden freeze can break a filled glass jug). And, finally, we store the accumulated liquid in our root cellar (or in a cold spring), because sap can sour if it's left "out in the warm;" one spoiled bottle will ruin a whole batch of syrup.
When the season is over, of course, is when the real fun begins. That's when my wife and I strain our collected nectar and—tasting each container to be sure it hasn't soured—boil it over an open fire in a 15-gallon iron kettle. After about eight hours of adding sap as the contents of the pot steam away (and stirring the liquid regularly), our approximately 30 gallons of "juice" is reduced to five or six quarts of concentrated sweetness. We then transfer this thin syrup to a pan on the kitchen stove, where we can stir it constantly (and better control the heat), to avoid scorching the product.
Taste and consistency tell us when the batch is done. After our syrup has cooled, we pour it into jars and store it in the 'fridge. (I left some of the tasty liquid outside once, and when I found it later—during warm weather—the syrup had become a rubbery mass.)
Our "sugaring season" (which runs as short as nine days down here in the Ozarks) is officially closed when we remove all of the jugs, spigots, and nails from our trees, wash the equipment in preparation for next year's harvest, and treat ourselves to some homemade breakfast ambrosia.