Behind the Scenes: New England Maple Syrup Production

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Maple syrup is an iconic product of New England foodways, so I was especially excited to go on the BU sustainability field trip to Mass Audubon Ipswich River Nature Reserve last weekend. This FREE field trip was open to all BU students and included a guided tour of the maple sugaring process, followed by a pancake breakfast on the property. The tour was entirely outdoors, so we did some hiking through the snow as our guide showed us how to get from sap to syrup. Ever wonder how maple syrup is made? It’s a fairly straightforward process, but extremely labor intensive.

Maple Forest

How Maple Syrup is Made:

The first step is to tap the tree, which simply means drilling a hole and attaching a spout for the sap to drip and collect into a bucket. The number of taps in a tree depends upon its size, and even the oldest, largest trees at Ipswich River Reserve do not have more than 4 taps, so as not to compromise the tree or sap production. Trees have to have reached a certain size before they can be tapped (about 10 inches in diameter) and are often at least 40 years old. The metal buckets that collect the sap are emptied about every 6-8 hours, depending on weather conditions.

Maple Tree Tap

The sap itself looks and tastes like water (yes, we tasted it!), and is only about 1% sugar. It takes about 86 gallons of sap (at a 1% sugar concentration) to produce 1 gallon of maple syrup. No wonder it is so expensive! But how does the sap get turned into delicious maple syrup? All you need is heat.

Heating up the maple sap in the sugar shack

After the buckets of sap are collected, they are brought to the “sugar shack” to be heated up. As you can probably tell, the sugar shack is a steamy little cabin that houses the machinery. The sap is simply poured into a tank where it is heated up to just above boiling, so that the water evaporates out. Nothing is added to the sap. It is simply a matter of evaporation. Once the liquid reaches the desired temperature, you have maple syrup! No additives needed.

Maple Syrup: How its made!

After leaving the sugar shack, we were greeted with a sample cup of freshly made maple syrup. Things got even sweeter as we went into the barn for all you care to eat pancake breakfast. It was the perfect way to warm up and refuel after a chilly hike through the maple forest on a cold February day. Before leaving, I was sure to purchase my own bottle of locally produced maple syrup from the gift shop. After learning about how much work it is to produce, I have a much greater appreciation for it!

Flapjack Fling

Different Grades of Maple Syrup:

You may be wondering what the difference is between the different grades of maple syrup. The lighter syrups (Grade A: light and medium amber) are made earlier in the season, and the darker syrups (dark amber and Grade B) are made later in the season. The difference is simply due to the temperature outside. Before my field trip, I always assumed that Grade A was superior. After all, that is how it works at school, as well as in the grading of other food products, such as eggs. But in the world of maple syrup, that is not always the case. Grade B maple syrup has a more distinctively “maple” flavor, and is often called cooking syrup for this reason. So the grading scale is purely a matter of taste preference.

Maple Grading Regulations

For those of you that would like to learn more:

– Kelly

Hands-on Educational Highlights of the Fall Semester

Jacques Pepin

My first semester of graduate school has come to a close. Despite the wealth of knowledge that I gained from my courses, some of my favorite educational experiences occurred outside of the classroom. Between special lectures at BU, trips for work, and events hosted by the Gastronomy Students Association and the Massachusetts Dietetic Association, I have been able to get a well-rounded understanding of food and nutrition. So without further ado, here is a list of my favorite hands-on educational experiences from this past semester.

AD Makepeace Cranberry Bog

  • Getting oriented to my food studies program by taking a GPS tour of Boston’s foodie hotspots (including the Fenway Victory Gardens and a vegetarian food truck), followed by beers and appetizers at Meadhall
  • Learning about local New England foodways by touring a cranberry bog and visiting an apple orchard (see this post)
  • Attending a panel on the Dietitians role in sustainability, which included a presentation by Barton Seaver (National Geographic Fellow and Washington DC Chef), as well as a representative from Farm Aid, a hospital sustainability coordinator, and a chef/Dietitian at Johnson and Wales University.
  • Taking a trip to Sysco for work, and getting to taste-test new vegetarian recipes for the dining halls. Getting paid to eat? Yes, please!
  • Attending a workshop at Harvard Common Press on food writing, where I got to mingle with the editor of Edible Boston, as well as learn about the ins and outs of cookbook publishing. Did I mention that the brunch spread was from Flour Bakery? Yum! (read here to learn more about the event)
  • Getting to see Jaques Pepin, the co-founder of my program, speak at BU. He also signed my cookbook! To learn more about the event, read here and here.
  • Taking the Cheese 101 Class at Formaggio Kitchen with the Massachusetts Dietetic Association. The class included 8 cheese and condiment pairings, 4 wine tastings, and a cave tour!

Cheese 101 at Formaggio Kitchen

Cheese 101 at Formaggio Kitchen

– Kelly

Gastronomy in New York City

On Friday my roommate and I took a day trip to New York City as an early birthday celebration. Although seeing the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree and holiday decorations was the main motivation for the trip, I also got to experience food and culture in the city.

Our Global Kitchen, NYC

The American Museum of Natural History has a special exhibit through August 12, 2013 called Our Global Kitchen. I first read about it on Marion Nestle’s blog last week, and was very excited that this exhibit would coincide with my trip! The exhibit was perfect to see after finishing my first semester in the BU Gastronomy program, but even my roommate was fascinated by the displays. The topics were very relevant to my Food Culture and Food Systems class, and included information on: the pro’s and con’s of biotechnology, the issue of world hunger, the external costs of meat consumption, monoculture vs. biodiversity, organics and integrated pest management, eating patterns from around the world, obesity and nutrition, food waste, the history of foodways, the science of cooking, and so much more! I highly recommend this exhibit, whether you are a gastronome or not. It is great information to help consumers make educated choices, and to learn about where our food comes from.

Our Global Kitchen, NYC

I also couldn’t help buying this cute T shirt!

Other Gastronomy related highlights included a grilled chicken curry sandwich with cranberry harissa chutney from Le Pain Quotidien in Central Park, as well as cupcakes from the Plaza Food Hall. Also, even though the majority of my NYC dining experiences aren’t at chain restaurants, the calorie counts on chain restaurant menus (such as Le Pain Quotidien) are great at helping make an informed purchase!

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Are any other foodies heading to NYC anytime soon? While I didn’t go during this trip, I highly recommend checking out the Chelsea Market (see below) and Eataly. Where are your favorite places to go in New York?

Chelsea Market

– Kelly

BU Sustainablility Cranberry Bog and Apple Field Trip

Today marks the first day of autumn, and I was lucky enough to spend my first autumn in New England on a field trip to a local cranberry bog and apple orchard! After browsing the BU events calendar online, I discovered this awesome (and FREE) field trip arranged by the Sustainability Coordinator of BU Dining.  Being a lover of local food and guided tours, this excursion sounded right up my alley! My roommate joined me, as she has a strong affinity for cranberries and has always wanted to visit a cranberry bog.

This FREE field trip included:

  • Pumpkin Muffins and Coffee at the George Sherman Union
  • A tour of the various cranberry bogs at A.D. Makepeace
  • A yummy box lunch from BU
  • A trip to Keith’s Farm to pick our own apples

And now for the tour…

The cranberry bog tour was even more impressive than I imagined! A.D. Makepeace is the largest cranberry bog in the world and has about 2000 acres of bogs on their land. Our chartered bus drove us to 4 different bogs on the property, including the world’s largest cranberry bog (which is 75 acres large). We got to see both dry harvest and wet harvest. The wet harvest looked just like an Ocean Spray commercial! (Not too surprising though since A.D. Makepeace is an Ocean Spray grower)

Dry harvest

Wet harvest

After the tour, we wandered around the gift shop and ate our boxed lunches at picnic tables on the property. Then we got back on the bus and went to Keith’s Farm. Nothing says fall in New England like apple picking!

My roommate and I brought home 10 apples from Keith’s Farm. At the market at AD Makepeace, I also picked up a ½ pound of fresh cranberries and a ½ pound of apple juice sweetened dried cranberries. I see lots of cranberry and apple flavored meals in my future! These recipes are catching my eye:

BU students can be notified of future sustainability events like this one here. BU Dining makes an effort to embrace the sustainable food movement by putting on educational events such as this field trip, as well as making a commitment to incorporate more sustainable food products and practices. Below are some highlights of the BU Dining sustainability initiative:

  • 28% of BU food purchases are sourced locally (within 250 miles)
  • Monday menus (“Make a Difference Monday”) are based around local, sustainable, and organic foods
  • Dining menus incorporate fair trade coffee, cage free eggs, and sustainable seafood
  • In 2011, the GSU diverted 73% of waste from the landfill by recycling and composting
  • A farmers market is held on campus Thursdays during September and October

-Kelly