One of the places my soul rests to this day is Buck Brook’s boiling shed, where some hundred and forty gallons of maple sap was reduced to three gallons of thick, satisfying syrup.
By the way — if you have never splurged for some real, reduced-sap maple syrup, go get some now. Use a quarter as much real maple syrup as you would pour from a bottle of corn syrup with “maple flavoring.” Your taste buds and your body will be more content than any amount of artificial syrup can provide.
But on with my story —
The spring snows of 1970 were wet and turning to cold rains when we fired up the boiling shed, and a good lot of that snow and rain had soaked up the shed, inside as well as out. After all, the object of boiling maple sap is to get rid of water and leave the maple sugars and flavors. The process releases copious quantities of steam and the shed must let that steam out. Imagine a simple shed with every fourth board of the walls taken out. And every third board of the roof.
Yep. It was wet and cold. But the breezes were kept at bay well enough to let the fire rage and we got real good at establishing sit-spots close enough to toss on more wood while staying far enough back so the fire on our front sides balanced the cold on the rest of us.
The floor of the shed was dirt and the logs, fire and ashes were on top of that, creating a fire pit that I remember as being some six by four feet. Cinder blocks were stacked three high around the fire pit, with some stacked in the middle to support the pan. The stacks of cinder blocks around the edges of the the fire were spaced some two feet apart to allow tossing on more wood and allowing plenty of air to the inferno we kept raging.
Held above the fire by the cinder blocks was a metal sheet, large enough to cover the entire large fire pit and the cinderblocks around it. The metal sheet had a sealed metal wall around it, rising only some eight inches in depth. There was a lot of surface area exposed to the fire under the boiling sap and to the air above it.
I was not there for the lighting of that fire, but I often stopped by and helped. Well. At least I chatted — it did not take any effort at all to get all the students eager to play at feeding the fire.
And the fire needed constant playing. More wood. More distributing the hot coals. The buckets of sap needed to be regularly and carefully added to the steaming caldron, letting the sap loose its water but keeping it thin enough to boil, not burn.
Night and day for more than a week the steam rolled out of the boiling shed, until the trees had returned their stored sap into their branches. The little stream of sap filling our buckets slowed to drips and the drips slowed to occasional drops.
We started letting the fire settle and cool, gently boiling off the last of the water, boiling more gently and stirring the thickening liquid until, at last, the liquid was just the texture we claimed to be syrup!
Just as I missed the lighting of the fire, I missed the moment of claiming syrup. Since it would have been difficult to completely extinguish that much hot ash and burning wood I’m thinking there must have been a concerted effort to get the hot liquid scooped out of that shallow pan and funneled into the glass jugs that were waiting.
We had saved one-gallon glass vinegar jugs for the occasion. We filled three of them and ate pancakes with gusto.