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Boiling presupposes heat, which requires fuel. Anything flammable can be used—coal, gas, electricity, even old truck tires (the favorite combustible of another local syrup maker)—but wood is the classic material and maple somehow the most appropriate wood with which to fuel the fire to reduce maple sap. Whatever the fuel, it obviously has to be collected, prepared and lugged to the fire.
Maple sap may be mostly water but making syrup out of it is considerably trickier than boiling water. If you don't boil out enough water, you are left with a thin, semisweet concoction that promptly ferments into a sour, vinegary one. On the other hand, if you turn your back for a few minutes on a boiling sap pan, all the water will vanish, leaving you with a kind of caramelized epoxy, good only for patching canoes. To avoid these undesirable extremes, efficient commercial operators use manufactured evaporator devices equipped with gauges that indicate precisely when the proper sugar content has been reached. However, this is too easy and tame for a genuine recreational forager. Our system is intuitive—it involves peering through flames and smoke to monitor the color of the brew, letting it run off a wooden spoon to test viscosity and finally tasting the boiling sap. In the spring you can dependably identify amateur syrup makers by their red eyes, scorched jackets and blistered tongues.
Personally, I have come up with only one syrup-making refinement that seems worth making public; it is that operations will be easier and more entertaining if you get yourself a women's tennis team. Several years ago I was more or less bequeathed such a sporting group by the athletic director of a small local college. Because both tennis players and maple trees tend to become active at about the same time of year, there was some concern at first that syrup and tennis administration might prove to be incompatible interests. However, they are, in fact, complementary, chiefly because it turns out that modern college women can be convinced, or think it politic to be convinced, that prancing about a maple grove is a splendid preseason conditioning exercise. Generally, singles candidates are best employed gathering sap and bringing it back to the outdoor factory. Lugging five-gallon buckets in each hand builds upper-body strength, while hopping about amongst the rocks and brush piles improves agility and the ability to get down low for ground strokes. Doubles players cannot, of course, be expected to show such mobility, but when paired, they make very good stove stokers and boiling-sap tasters, these being exercises that teach cooperation and how to remain cool under fire.
If simple labor were all that was involved, a men's team might be as useful, but there is a special factor that makes women considerably superior. It is that they tend to wear, and wear out, a lot more panty hose than the average man. Converted panty hose are the best known filters for sap, which has to be strained many times between tree and syrup bottle. Tennis players, at least those who are ambitious of being included on traveling squads, will cheerfully save up their defunct underwear and bring it to the old coach while the sap is flowing and before the varsity team is selected.
More or less in this fashion we produced seven gallons of syrup, a new local foraging record. Figuring no more than minimum wages for amateur athletes, it cost about $25 for each gallon. As to quality, more adventurous feeders may find the home brew interesting. It tends to be black and tangy by reason of the wood smoke it has absorbed. Like a Cracker Jack box, it often contains surprises—bits of charcoal, twigs and an occasional caramelized wasp that has slipped through a rent in a filter. (The modern athletic college woman is terribly hard on panty hose, and wasp-sized holes are not unusual.)
All of which illustrates one of the central principles, or paradoxes, of foraging: you do not make syrup solely, or perhaps not even largely, to get syrup. If this is the only objective, then it is best (i.e., easier, quicker and cheaper) to go on about one's regular business—milking cows, robbing banks, writing magazine articles or whatever. Part of the proceeds can then be taken to East Sawed Log, Vermont, and exchanged with Uncle Ezra for some of his quality-controlled golden syrup.
The truth is that syruping and a lot of other foraging activities balance out only when the "other rewards" column is totaled. If you are so inclined and don't have to do it as real work, then it can be invigorating to spend a December day cutting and stacking wood for subsequent syrup fires. Slogging around on snow-shoes setting taps brightens up a January weekend. Waiting for the sap to flow gives a nice anticipatory zest to the next few weeks. It is a pleasure to go around talking not necessarily to, but at, maple trees, praising the very sappy ones, admonishing the laggards. Sitting around an open fire on a cold March night watching boiling sap and tennis players is warming in many ways. Just why is essentially unfathomable, in much the same way that it is not easy to explain why it feels good to serve four aces in a row. If someone comes up with a good explanation of the former, it will probably do as well as an explanation of the latter.
About the time the taps have been pulled from the maples and the syrup pans either scoured or junked because they are beyond scouring, it is time to start after mushrooms. This is a major event on the foraging calendar and a very serious one, the wild mushroomer being under a lot more pressure to succeed than, say, the syrup maker, because if he fails in his quest he cannot fall back and feed on more or less comparable store-bought produce. Such an assertion may raise some skeptical questions—such as, what are those round, rubbery things, dished out in steak houses, on pizzas and in omelets, that are advertised as mushrooms? They are commercially raised mushrooms and they compare to many wild species as orangeade does to freshly squeezed orange juice. The trouble is that though a lot of attempts have been made, nobody has found out how to propagate dependably and thus to profitably peddle the tastier feral species. Commerical growers, therefore, concentrate on a variety of meadow mushroom called Agaricus, which has permitted it-self to be domesticated. Agaricus is a good enough food, but I have yet to meet anyone who has tried both wild and tame mushrooms who does not prefer the former by a wide margin. Thus there are a lot of strongly motivated mushroom hunters.
Among the 3,000 or so species of fungi in this country, an undetermined number are, as they say in the guides, "edible and choice." Unfortunately, another group can give you headaches, stomach cramps, hallucinations or make you dead. Deciding which is which can be tricky and enlivens this pastime. As a practical matter, most foragers, rather than puzzle over every species, settle for a few of indisputably benign properties. On my own good list there are about 20 mushrooms that I get and gobble whenever met, but of these, three are superior. They are morels (Morchella esculenta), chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius) and oysters (Pleurotus ostreatus).
Unfortunately, in an otherwise splendid foraging year, about the only plants that didn't do very well were the morels, which normally are among the first good mushrooms to appear in the spring. Last spring they simply weren't there, a failure noted generally by everyone. Normally secretive and competitive, mush-roomers spent a lot of time in 1977 poor-mouthing among themselves, theorizing about what had happened. Some thought the hard winter had done in the morels, while others held the unseasonably hot spring responsible, but nobody really knew. Maybe the monsters got them.