Sunday, October 14, 2012

Harvest Ingredient 11: The Mighty Maple!

Like Chestnut trees, maple are found principally on the same three continents:  North America, Asia and Europe, with the species found in a small part of North Africa having come from Europe.  Only one lone species is native to the Southern Hemisphere, all the rest are to be found in the northern.  Of the 128 species of the tree, the vast majority are actually native to Asia, despite that maple is most often associated with North America, due to that amber, like liquid gold, in the bottle:  Maple Syrup!

Almost all maples have some value and even commercial exploitation of their wood.  That is especially true of north America, where in traditional times the wood has been manufacture everything from wood chips for smoking meats and fish to the carving of canoes and flutes.  The wood itself was/is used in the manufacture of the maple syrup and sugar in traditional camps.  Maple wood is also used in modern times in flooring, kitchen utensils like cutting boards, picture frames, doors, carved building adornments and furniture.  Some sporting equipment such as baseball bats and bowling pins are also made of maple wood.  Some species have very specific designs in their wood grains and are highly sought after for the patterns, some of which go by colorful names, such as:  Cat's Claw, Bees Wing, and...Crotch Wood.  The trees are also widely grown as ornamentals, with some being quite small and showy, especially in the fall; although a few species have been declared invasive in some places.  Maple is well known as a "tonewood," which is a wood that carries sound waves easily.  Mentioned above are Native American flutes made from the wood; so too are bowed instruments like violins and cellos, some woodwinds like oboes, guitar necks and even some types of drum kits.  Maple pulp is used in making high quality paper.  Maple trees are also extremely important to honeybees, owed to the fact that it pollinates so early and profusely.

A beautiful example of a maple wood flute by Laughing Crow of Taos NM

Although most of the maple syrup that we find on the shelves of supermarkets is from the Acer saccharum or sugar maple; other indigenous maple trees, of which there are at least 12, also produce sap suitable for boiling down into syrup, it is just that their sugar content is much lower sugar content (there are actually other trees tapped for the same reasons, including beech and birch).  Sugar camps are the traditional Native American way of sugaring.  Trappers and hearty types from Europe followed suit and sugar shacks were set up in a similar fashion.  Sugar shacks are still an institution in Canada and are firmly ensconced in Metis culture.  True native sugar camps also still exist, sometimes even with traditional A Frame tenting houses, although a traditional tipi is also used at many camps.  This is a later winter affair, not a true harvest season to-do.  However as the weather starts to cool, even here in the south, warm maple syrup starts to come to mind.  All number of fall and early winter treats and holiday foods include maple.  Here's a quick rundown of the process.  1.  when there is a winter thaw, usually in February some time, maple trees are tapped with their clear sap, that is not running freely.  2.  The sap is collected in a container made for the occasion (see the traditional wooden box below). 3.  It is then cooked down in batches into syrup--still over open fires.  4.  If sugar is the the goal, it is cooked further to a crystallized stage, poured into a container made for pounding, and pounded into a fine sugar.  Clear candies are also made at this time.  Maple candy on a stick is one of the world's oldest lollipops!   The truth behind this process is too expansive for a complete and detailed description, or "recipe" if you will, to be given in this post (that's for another post) for a wonderful introduction to this please visit Woodland's Page On Sugaring here.  Sugaring is stopped when budding sap starts production within the tree, the sap turns slowly more cloudy by the day and signals the coming of spring.  Some consider this to possibly be the oldest agricultural product in Northern America.

The uses for maple syrup and sugar are almost endless.  Just watch one Andrew Zimmern's Bizarre Foods up in Montreal, where he is invited to a sugar shack of a prominent chef during the winter, and you will see the uses to which this valuable amber liquid is put!  Every dish as the little restaurant attached to the shack has maple in it in some way.  In so many ancient food ways of the upper woodlands, maple sugar was used instead of salt in foods.  So much so, that many groups that had salt deposits on their lands sold the salt in abundance to settlers and European traders without adding it to their own foods during early colonial times.  Maple candies and putting maple sugar into Pemmican made ideal travel foods, especially for hunters.  It replaced honey in the world's original popcorn balls, which were also a travel food.  The syrup went into the sugaring of berries for preservation purposes and it was mixed with native fruits like the American persimmon to make simple sweet puddings.  It was also made into beverages.  Perhaps the most amazing pairing in traditional food ways is combining maple with cooked wild rice.  This constitutes one of the easiest recipes on the whole north American Native cooking, and yet represents one of the most complex of flavors.  I had previously mentioned this in last year's harvest writing on wild rice.

In modern native kitchens, maple going to everything from fudge (which is much more popular in Native American cooking than one might imagine), to native milk shakes and fizzes; cheesecakes, pancakes with native fruit, modern trail mixes, cream candies, modern pies with or without nuts, puddings made with imported fruits like apples and maple beer...yeah, it's really a fermented beverage.  Now one kind find maple cured bacon, maple ice creams, maple caramel sauces and other types of maple cured meats from sausages to Canadian hams.  It is a popular substitute for honey in herbal teas and it is really popular in fruited muffins and tea breads. Folded into an imported dairy product like sour cream or yogurt, it makes a nice dressing for fruit salads and grain salads that contain dried fruits. There are even maple/bacon lollipops available for order over the web!  A personal favorite of mine is maple candied hominy.   A couple of books that I would like to recommend include:  E. Barrie Kavacsh's Enduring Harvest and the very special Ininatig's Gift of Sugar:  Traditional Native Sugarmaking by Laura Waterman Wittstock, part of the "We Are Still Here:  Native Americans Today series, aimed at older elementary school children. 

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