By Lauren Wanko
For many, it’s what makes a delicious, hot pancake even tastier — maple syrup.
“This is as good as it gets and the first runs of sap have the highest and best sugar,” said Peter Watson, director of Howell Living History Farm.
Maple sugaring season is underway at the Mercer County Park Commission’s Howell Living History Farm where staff and volunteers transport school kids back to the turn of the 20th century.
“This time of year sugar maples are feeding the buds that will soon become leaves and what they’re giving them is a solution of water and sugar and nutrients that were stored in the root system over the winter so now when we have freezing cold nights and warming days that sap is being pumped up to the trees to feed them,” Watson said.
Students learn how to take a little bit of the sap from the trees to make maple syrup. It starts with tapping a sugar maple, done with a type drill used in the 1890s.
“It was cool. It was a little challenging because it was hard for it to get into it but it was cool to see the stuff coming out of it,” said 9-year-old Stevie Sanderson.
The hole is about two inches deep. The tap’s inserted next.
“And that lets the sap on its way up the tree come out and drip into a container,” Watson said.
At the end of season, the tap’s pulled out and the hole closes up naturally. Next year they’re careful not to drill a hole in the same spot.
“It’s interesting to know you can make food out of nature. I didn’t know you could tap a tree and food would come out,” said Sanderson.
“A lot of the kids just don’t know where their food comes from and a lot of them, particularly if we have students come from an inner city, really don’t understand what country life is like, what a farm is like,” said Program Assistant Jane Kidder.
The sap slowly drips into pails attached to the farm’s trees. It can take anywhere from one to two days to fill up. It’s poured into milk cans and loaded onto a horse drawn wagon and carried to the sugar shack.
The sap flows into an evaporator from a storage tank above. It’s boiled to 219.5 degrees, until most of the water’s evaporated. Then you’re left with pure maple syrup. It’s then filtered then bottled.
The evaporator is fueled by wood the kids cut and split. They also learn how to churn butter and sift flour. Then they dig in to pancakes drizzled with maple syrup. The staff and volunteers are dressed in period clothing for the history lessons, something Sanderson really liked.
“I think it’s cool to know that where you’re standing things used to happen that aren’t happening now,” she said.
“History is just full of wonderful lessons that we can apply today and they not only give us a sense of who we are and where we came from, but they give us clues as to the kind of things we can do now and moving forward to enrich our lives,” said Watson.
In New Jersey, maple sugaring season ends in late March.