Last Saturday morning, the frigid air made me want to brew a cup of coffee and sit by my window to watch the sunrise. But instead of watching from my room, I did so from Cayuga Nature Center, while overlooking the whole of Cayuga Lake. Famed for its annual Maple Festival, the Center also offered me a new way of appreciating upstate New York’s gift from nature — maple syrup.
The Maple Festival is an annual event that highlights maple production in the Finger Lakes region and the unique food culture surrounding it. This year, the event featured dozens of educational programs, vendors like Cayuga Creamery and Sapsquatch and a guided maple tour by Prof. Brian Chabot, ecology and evolutionary biology.
A short 25 minute drive took me from Cornell to the Nature Center on Taughannock Boulevard by Cayuga Lake. My visit opened with a pancake breakfast. We were each offered a plateful of sweet apple crisps, small sausages, fries and pancakes topped with maple syrup in two different gradations. I also made myself a cup of coffee with a packet of white maple sugar. As I sat down on one of the long benches to dig in, the band Cielle and All Sounds On were setting up to play some blues and folk music. The music lineup continued all morning. Throughout the performances, families sauntered in to enjoy their breakfast. After finishing, some kids were busy doodling on the tables, while others clamored for ice cream from Cayuga Creamery’s stall.
Curious, I moseyed over to the stand and happened upon their newly introduced maple bacon ice cream. Before this event, I could never have imagined a flavor combining such different flavors. Apparently, with some maple syrup and inverted sugar syrup, you can candy bacon and make ice cream out of it. The result is a unique blend of brownish-white seasonal flavor that’s simultaneously salty and sweet. A cone or sundae seemed a perfect addition to the maple-themed breakfast.
After finishing breakfast, I hopped on a guided maple tour. As I learned on the tour, maple tree sap extraction and processing has a long history that dates back to indigenous peoples in North America. When we talk about tapping nature’s resources, we don’t typically think of actually tapping a tree. But just by drilling a hole, putting a bucket under the tree to collect the exuded saps and boiling the saps in a piece of hollowed wood, you can extract a concentration of sugar that can be further processed into maple sugar. The sugar concentration comes from the free-flowing saps of a maple tree, coupled with the workings of bacteria groups. To show us the basics of the production process, Prof. Chabot led us to a small sugar shack with a large pan hoisted on firewood. Mist rose from the colorless sap in what appeared to be a time-consuming boiling process. The whole process has to be tightly controlled: If the sugar density is too high, you’ll end up with gritty crystals, but if it’s under-boiled, the syrup spoils very quickly. This is why the industry standard of syrup density has a pretty narrow range.
Syrup production is seasonal, and the spring cycle of freezing and thawing is critical to pressurization of the sap within the tree. Each tree can yield between 10 and 14 gallons of sap. We’ve been fortunate to profit off this process, but, as Prof. Chabot described, we may not continue to profit. Climate change has forced producers into using elaborate mechanism to time their tapping. This winter has been especially warm, so producers started earlier than usual.
Looking into the sugar bushes, I reflected on the significance of man versus nature. In growing sugarcane for other kinds of sweeteners, forests are often cleared to make room for sugarcane. But a forest is not just trees; it comprises an entire ecosystem. And unlike sugarcane, the maple tree isn’t cut down to tap into its resources, and it survives tapping seasons. This is why maple trees are here to stay.
But all in all, perhaps the best way to appreciate maple syrup is to pause and think a moment about its history and significance. As I sat back to enjoy my coffee and ice cream, I reveled in all there was to make this morning sweet and delicious.