As far off as warm weather seems, there’s reason to take heart. Maple syrup season is upon us, and it’s among the very first signs of spring.
Granted, the craft itself is nothing new — the presence of maple syrup pre-dates the arrival of European settlers. However, the art of making it and, above all, eating it has been upended as artisanal producers get involved and chefs use the ingredient in unusual and savory ways.
The best, if not surprising, news: Illinois is one of at least 17 states to produce the sweet, amber delight, and one of the westernmost to do so.
Keeping the tradition alive: 18-year-old Will Travis at Spence Farm in Fairbury, who received a $12,000 grant from the Frontera Farmer Foundation to rebuild his family’s generations-old sugar house in 2007. Before that, Travis used the same sugar house and equipment as his forefathers.
Funks Grove in Downstate Shirley is another operation that “sugars-off” locally. Indiana enjoys a rich history, too — just ask Tim Burton of Burton’s Maplewood Farm near Bloomington, Ind.
Meanwhile, chef-turned-gourmet-syrup-purveyor Steven Stallard of Grand Rapids, Mich., fashions 18-year, single barrel bourbon-aged and Tahitian vanilla-infused syrups for his BLiS brand. They’re go-tos for chefs including Grant Achatz, Homaro Cantu and Charlie Trotter.
Things are changing for our syrup-crazed neighbors up north as well. The province of Quebec long has hosted pop-up sugar shacks (cabane a sucre in French). At the locales, seasonal activities, tours and maple-themed meals break the cycle of human hibernation. Historically farmer-run, they’re now being taken seriously by the food community.
“People need to see each other after five months of cold weather,” said Martin Picard, chef of Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal and owner of Cabane a Sucre Au Pied de Cochon, a chef-driven sugar shack he opened in 2009.
It takes approximately 40 gallons of sap to make a single gallon of 100 percent pure maple syrup. The process of concentrating it is essentially the same, regardless of where it comes from.
Clear sap, which begins at as little as 1.5 percent sugar, flows from fresh-tapped maple trees as temperatures warm slightly during the day but continue to dip below freezing at night. (Sugar or black maples are favored by many small-batch producers.)
The buckets that collect the liquid are then emptied into an evaporator (usually made of stainless steel), and the liquid is brought to a boil — typically by wood-fire or propane — and simmered until it’s dense and thick, with a sugar content of around 62 percent. It is then filtered — three times is common — and bottled without additives or preservatives.
Burton points to five grades of syrup — light amber, medium amber and dark amber Grade A, Grade B and Commercial Grade. However, various regions have their own grading specifications.
Grade A maple syrup, the lightest in color, is culled at the start of the season. Robust Grade B comes as the weather warms. Because it has more oomph, it’s an ideal choice for slow-cooked, hearty dishes.
Burton, who predicts his sales of Grade B will eclipse Grade A this year, warns consumers to beware of copycats since only a minuscule maple syrup content is required for a label to read “pure maple syrup.”
“It’s only the real thing if it says ‘100 percent pure maple syrup,’ ” he says.
Some syrup-makers rely on old-growth trees. Others swear soil imparts nuances to the final product, and many use hydrometers to test sugar density. Stallard — who, like others of his ilk, collects some sap from area farms — has rejected batches due to the storage containers used or because the liquid was placed near livestock.
“Flavors permeate the syrup,” says Stallard, whose final product hovers at 67 percent sugar and is available at Provenance Food and Wine in Chicago. “I don’t want something that tastes barn-y.”
The magic takes place during the evaporation process.
“The end result is largely based on how the syrup is boiled down,” says Burton, whose syrup is sold at Green City Market and the Daley Plaza farmers market and used everywhere from the Bristol and Xoco to Blackbird and Table Fifty-Two.
Stallard, too, boils slowly to develop caramel-like flavors.
“I want mine to be super-dense, to lacquer pancakes,” he says.
Not surprisingly, it doesn’t end there: Craft brewers are using maple syrup to flavor beers. BliS ages fine sherry vinegar in single maple-cured casks. Travis is looking into making maple vinegar, too.
Syrup is being produced from sorghum as well, and it’s making inroads on menus all over town. Right now, Burton is producing sorghum syrup from his personal sorghum patch.
Maple syrup isn’t relegated to pancakes anymore. It’s a key ingredient in culinary cocktails (particularly those with bourbon or rum), braises, brines and seafood dishes.
Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page, authors of the James Beard Award-winning The Flavor Bible (Little, Brown, $35), use maple syrup to flavor duck, pork and game. They also favor using it in smoky dishes as well as those with tropical flavors.
John des Rosiers, chef and owner of Inovasi in Lake Bluff, uses a hit of the sweet stuff to temper spicy dishes.
“Maple syrup also is fantastic with salty flavors,” he says, pointing to a recent creation where he drizzles ginger-flecked soy-syrup sauce atop lightly breaded, fried calamari resting on a bed of coconut-lemongrass reduction.
Taking a somewhat different tack, pastry chef and caterer Malika Ameen of now-closed Aigre Doux makes compound butter with maple syrup and herbs like thyme, parsley and sage or spices, such as cumin. Then, she tucks it under chicken skin before roasting the bird.
“Just remember you need to use maple syrup when you’re beginning to cook,” Picard says. “It’s kind of like red wine in a sauce — it makes things taste different even if you’re not able to say why.”
Jennifer Olvera is a Brookfield free-lance writer.
The National Maple Syrup Festival will be held Saturday and Sunday and March 13 and 14, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., at Burton’s Maplewood Farm, 8121 W. County Rd. 75 South, Medora, Ind.
The festival will feature demonstrations, vendors, live music and maple syrup-infused food.
Tickets are $10 for adults and $6 for kids ages 5 to 15. Call (812) 966-2168 or go to nationalmaplesyrupfestival.com.
In Chicago, a free, two-day fete kicks off March 20 at North Park Village Nature Center, 5801 N. Pulaski.
Visitors can tap one of the center’s 50 trees and taste syrup off the fire while learning about its lure and lore. The fest runs from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. both days. Call (312) 742-7529.
Sugar shacks are a Quebecois ritual. Many offer year-round activities, but more action takes place during maple syrup season.
Common treats include hot maple taffy poured over fresh snow and picked up with wooden sticks, saccharine-sweet sugar pie and grands-peres (syrup-poached dumplings).
Martin Picard’s Cabane a Sucre Au Pied de Cochon, an upscale spin on the sugar shack, is in Saint-Benoit de Mirabel about 45 minutes outside of Montreal.
Its take-out operation serves slathered jerky, foie gras from syrup-fed ducks, cotton candy and dougnuts filled with maple-infused pastry cream. In the communal, ad hoc restaurant, Picard bestows lobster- and foie gras-stuffed cabbage and maple-braised beef tongue upon diners.
Cabane a Sucre Au Pied de Cochon will operate March 18 through May 9. (For more details, go to cabaneasucreaupieddecochon.com.)
Tim Burton of Burton’s Maplewood Farm in Indiana is kicking around the idea of pairing with chefs in like-minded fashion in the future.