BY: PRAVEENA THIRUNATHAN
Like every other kid, I always looked forward to my Saturday mornings. Those mornings were spent lazing around in bed, watching all my favourite cartoons, making progress on my video games, all while munching on whatever hearty breakfast my mom had cooked up. Some days it was french toast, other days it was pancakes or waffles, but no matter what she served it was always accompanied with a good lashing of all-Canadian pure maple syrup!
Or….what I ASSUMED was pure maple syrup.
You see, I never paid attention to the syrup bottle, so I always figured the delicious brown liquid I had been eating every morning was maple syrup. Years later, with the perspective of a food science student who just finished her QA and Food Labelling course, I decided to inspect the syrup bottle labels at the superstore. As I picked up the Aunt Jemima bottle that had graced our table for so many years, my curiosity turned to utter disbelief upon reading that it wasn’t maple syrup, but maple-FLAVOURED syrup.
Now, as a Canadian, this revelation was pretty shocking to me. Maple syrup is basically the tastiest Canadian stereotype you can find (aside from poutine).
Naturally, I assumed that my parents would perpetuate this stereotype when buying our breakfast foods. I pressed my mom for an answer to this sacrilege, to which she replied, “Did you not look at the prices? A bottle of pure maple syrup costs at least 3 times more compared to the regular syrup.”
Alright…I guess. That’s an acceptable reason for not buying maple syrup, but why is it so much more expensive? To answer that, let’s rewind time to about 400 years ago and look at the humble history of the maple tree.
Maple trees are part of the genus Acer, which is native to Asia, but can also be found throughout other parts of the world such as North America and Europe . The species native to Eastern Canada and Northeastern USA (i.e., prime maple syrup territory) are the Red Maple, Black Maple, and the aptly named Sugar Maple. Like many trees, maples have sap flowing through their xylem (the transport tissue of a tree, a bit like our blood vessels), transporting water, nutrients, and minerals from their roots to their leaves . However, the uniquely high sugar content of maple sap is what enables us to boil it down into syrup .
Among other native peoples, the Algonquians were one of the first to realize that sap could be concentrated down into maple syrup. They collected the sap by cutting notches into the trees and letting the sap drip down into a birch bark bucket, which was subsequently left outside to freeze . Because of the micronutrient content, the sap didn’t freeze completely. So, when the layer of ice is scraped off the next day, you get a sweet yet thick maple sap that is undeniably delicious. This indigenous maple syrup was the primary sweetener in the region, both for the First Nations people and for the new Europeans who came to settle Canada and the States.
The settlers learned the ways of maple syrup production from the First Nations people, which they ultimately adapted by adding their own techniques. To tap the sap, they bored holes and utilized augers. The sap was then collected in wooden buckets and taken back to the main camp to be boiled all together in a kettle. Fun fact: since the sugar content of the sap is only 2-5%, it takes about 40L of sap to make just 1L of syrup . That’s a lot of sap! No wonder maple syrup is expensive.
As the centuries passed, we have discovered more innovative ways to improve sap yield all while efficiently decreasing boiling time. By increasing surface area, one can increase the speed at which excess water was boiled off. Thus,large yet shallow sheet pans were adopted to boil the maple sap . Sap harvesting was improved by equipping each tree with plastic tubing to ferry the sap to a central “sugar shack” (cabane à sucre in Québec), which was later improved upon by utilizing vacuum pumps to effectively extract every bit of sap from a tree.
As the centuries passed, we have discovered more innovative ways to improve sap yield all while efficiently decreasing boiling time. By increasing surface area, one can increase the speed at which excess water was boiled off. Thus, large yet shallow sheet pans were adopted to boil the maple sap . Sap harvesting was improved by equipping each tree with plastic tubing to ferry the sap to a central “sugar shack” (cabane à sucre in Québec), which was later improved upon by utilizing vacuum pumps to effectively extract every bit of sap from a tree. The boiling process itself was refined so that the maple syrup obtained was of top notch quality. Boil too little, and you end up with a watery, tasteless syrup. Boil too much, and the sugars crystallize (which is good when making maple taffy or candy, but bad for syrup purposes). The final syrup should have a Brix (soluble solids content) of 66˚ with the color varying from light gold to a dark brown .
The Canadian grading system classifies maple syrup into two grades: Canada Grade A and Canada Processing Grade. The syrups in Grade A can be further classified into 4 colour classes, which are determined based on the amount of light that passes through the syrup . The American grading system separates their maple syrups into U.S. Grade A, U.S. Grade B (also known as Processing Grade), and Substandard . Like the Canadian system, U.S. Grade A syrups can be sorted into 4 colour classes, which are equivalent to the colour classes found in the Canadian system. It’s interesting to note that the darker the syrup is, the more deep and robust the flavour becomes. Keep that in mind the next time you want to bake or cook with maple syrup!
“WAIT!” you shout, “but what about all those maple-flavoured syrups? How are those made? Where does the maple flavour come from? GIVE ME MY MAPLE.” The answer lies in an interesting chemical compound called sotolon. It’s present in fenugreek and gives off a very curry-like smell, but when diluted considerably….it smells like maple syrup (or burnt sugar) .
Sotolon is the main component of artificial maple flavouring, and you can make your own at home using recipes available online —— involving a lot of fenugreek seeds. Your body is also capable of producing sotolon spontaneously. Ever had pee that smells like maple syrup!? This is a genetic disorder known as *drumroll* Maple Syrup Urine Disease (if I ruined anyone’s appetite with that fact, I’m so sorry) ! This disease is genetic, therefore there is no method of prevention, but the disease can be managed with a strict diet . Aside from sotolon, the other components of maple flavor aren’t well characterized, however sugar furanone was found to improve the richness of maple flavor mixtures .
Throughout eastern Canada (especially in Quebec) and in the northeastern United States (I’m looking at you Vermont), maple syrup is a symbol of the countryside and a sweet start to spring after the long, hard winter. The maple tree has shaped the great nation of Canada — its leaf embedded in our flag and its syrup embedded in our hearts. Generations of Canadians have grown up in the rural towns of Ontario and Quebec, eagerly headed to a sugar shack to pour syrup on fresh snow and, with a stick, roll it up into taffy.
Fun fact: Quebec has a maple syrup cartel, in order to protect the Quebecois maple syrup producers from fluctuations in maple sap quality and quantity . In good years, the surplus maple syrup is stored in a strategic reserve, to be used in years where production doesn’t meet demand. Another fun fact: there was a maple syrup heist back in 2012, when thieves 3,000 tonnes of syrup from barrels in the reserve, and replaced that syrup with water . The leader of the heist has been recently sentenced to 8 years in prison. We take our syrup seriously.
The love of maple extends to the USA, where the Sugar Maple is the official state tree of New York, Vermont, West Virginia and Wisconsin, and the Red Maple is the official state tree of Rhode Island . Vermont is also the biggest maple syrup producer in the States, going head to head with the biggest Canadian maple syrup producer, Quebec .
So does this mean I would prefer maple syrup above maple-flavored syrup? I gave it a lot of thought, and while my inner gourmet foodie wanted me to go get that pure Quebecois maple syrup, my inner poor student steered me in the direction of Aunt Jemima. It’s really a matter of personal preference on which one you pick, because both are safe to eat, deliciously amazing, and work best when slathered on a hot waffle or as a dip for crispy bacon strips (great flavor trend by the way).
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