A Sweet Taste of New England Foodways: Maple Syrup Production at the Ipswich River Nature Reserve

By Lauren Kouffman

Let’s be honest: there aren’t too many things that will get me out of bed before 9am on a Saturday morning. But a free, Sustainability @ BU-sponsored trip to see how maple syrup is produced (followed by an all-you-can-eat Flapjack Fling) made it hard for me to rationalize sleeping in.

Despite some trepidation about the day’s forecasted snowfall, we met at 9am at the George Sherman Student Union, to board our bus. Although I could easily see a gastronomy connection, I was surprised to see students from many other BU programs- a true interdisciplinary experience! Whether the draw was hands-on learning or the promise of unlimited Saturday morning pancakes, it was inspiring to see so many people learning about New England foodways.

Photo by Lauren Kouffman
Photo by Lauren Kouffman

We headed to the Mass Audubon Ipswich River Nature Reserve, in Topsfied, MA, where devoted volunteers spend the late winter season dutifully tapping maple trees on the Reserve’s 2,000+ acres of land. The sap they collect is refined on premises into maple syrup: “liquid gold”, they say. Since the process is so labor intensive, authentic and unadulterated maple syrup garners a much higher price at market than any generic brand. Maple syrup harvesters rely on the “rule of 86,” as it’s called: at a 1% sugar concentration, it takes approximately 86 gallons of unrefined maple sap to make just one gallon of A-grade syrup. Selling six and twelve-ounce bottles in the gift shop helps the Audubon Society reach its overarching goal of preserving the natural landscape for people and wildlife.

Our guide, Tony Salterno, lead us on a tour through the Reserve’s grounds, and taught us how to recognize a maple tree in the temperate forest: a maple’s gray, somewhat-smooth bark, and alternate-pattern branching are a dead giveaway. While many industrial-sized maple farms have nowadays instituted networks of rubber tubing to collect sap throughout the season, the Ipswich River Nature Reserve still relies on the traditional system of metal buckets, which need to be emptied every 6-8 hours, depending on temperature fluctuations.

Temperature, we learned, is the essential factor that can make or break a season for maple sugar harvesters. It’s the fluctuation between daily highs and nightly lows that causes the internal cells of the tree to expand and contract, pumping sap up and down through the xylem and phloem cells. The taps are driven into the tree trunk and just the right angle to intercept some of the sap during its twice-daily journey.

maple 4From the metal buckets, the unrefined maple sap is transferred to the “sugarhouse” where another volunteer carefully monitors the wood-fired boiling process, stirring constantly until the perfect consistency and color emerges. In the old days, syrup-makers would judge a batch’s doneness by its aroma and the amount of time it took for a dip of syrup to run off the back of a ladle; today, everything is controlled and measured by thermometers.

Photo by Lauren Kouffman
Photo by Lauren Kouffman

Wintery, early morning nature hikes are not my typical Saturday routine, but this was a truly interesting and engaging experience. Afterwards, our hosts graciously invited us in for a hearty and warming breakfast of fluffy flapjacks and sweet maple syrup. In the warmer months, they reminded us, we should return for a taste of hotdogs cooked in the maple sap, and maybe even spend a night camping on their amazing and peaceful grounds- just one of the perks of an Audubon Society membership. With the Ipswich Nature Reserve only an hour’s drive out of the city, I’ll definitely return for another unforgettable forest-to-table experience.

For visitor information on the Mass Audubon Ipswitch River Nature Reserve, call 978-887-9264, or email ipswichriver@massaudubon.org, or visit http://www.massaudubon.org/index.php

Lauren Kouffman is a first year MLA Gastronomy student, indiscriminate media enthusiast and snack fanatic. Follow her on Instagram for fancy food shots and silly Boston adventures @homeremedy.

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