Foods You Should Know: Maple Syrup

There is nothing more Canadian than maple syrup.

This distinctly sweet substance has been a mainstay in canadian cuisine for hundreds of years. Most people know generally how it is obtained and processed but is Canada selling its self short when it comes to how it brings this product to market?

Maple Syrup is the processed product that comes from the sap of the sugar maple, black maple and red maple trees. These trees are found all over eastern Canada, and New England, but in the biggest concentration in quebec in the foothills of the laurentian mountains. Quebec actually produces three quarters of the maple syrup in the world.

The production of maple syrup was a skill learned by early Canadian settlers from the native people of Quebec. Like many other organisms trees synthesize and store sugar as an energy source, this sugar is called sap. Maple trees happen to produce more sap than the average tree. During the spring the maple tree usually has excess sap that can be tapped by cutting into the tree. This sap is then collected, and taken for processing.*

Processing is simple but also an art. The sap is boiled and the excess water in the sap is evaporated. This is an extremely delicate process, if the sap is under boiled it will come out watery and can spoil easily, if it is over cooked it begins to crystallize.** Knowing when to stop the boil is part science and part experience. Usually a hydrometer is used to measure the brix(residual sugar) but the colour is also a determining factor, because the classification system used by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency(CFIA).

The colour of maple syrup has to do with it’s sugar concentration, the longer a producer cooks the sap down the darker and more caramelized the sugar will become. CFIA has a three tiered rating system which denotes the colour of the syrup. Level 1 is comprised of extra light, light and medium, Level 2 is amber, and Level 3 is dark. Seems simple enough right? Maybe a little bit too simple.

In the past year the Canadian Federal Government passed legislation which banned products like Aunt Jemima from calling themselves “Maple Syrup” though they could just label themselves as “Maple Flavoured Syrup” which most consumers wouldn’t notice or care about. This is why I, as well as many others, would like to see a system of classification which clearly denotes the origin and quality level of Canadian Maple Syrup and gives Maple Syrup Producers the right to seek restitution from large companies essentially selling sugar and chemicals while using the words “Maple” and “Syrup” to give their swill legitimacy.

Much like the DOC systems in Italy or the AOC systems in France, Canadian Maple Syrup Producers and the government should make Maple Syrup a distinctly regional canadian product. This will keep quality high, and allow those who really do produce a great product the ability to differentiate themselves from the fakers and also take the fakers to task legally.

Hey readers, lets hear your favourite thing to do with Maple Syrup. Lets get the comments going on this one.

*A mature sugar maple can produce about 40-55 Litres of sap per year. But it takes about 30 litres of sap to produce 1 litre of Maple Syrup. This means only about 1.5 litres of syrup per tree is produced.

**Maple Sugar is the result of this which to be honest is a mighty tasty mistake.