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Maple Syrup, The Essence of Spring

Article and photography by JP Campbell

In West Quebec it’s not unusual to mark the true beginning of Spring as the day the sap begins to run. This year it was March 31st. Immediately the core crew at the sugarbush were called to action.

The path to the Sugarshack
The path to the Sugarshack

First the trees must be tapped. In preparation snowmobile trails are made through the ‘main routes’ across the bush. The tappers branch off from these to prepare the trees. The Maples selected are at least 8” in diameter. In our location, a crew of two crosses the hills on snowshoes. The first member has a drill with a 7/16ths bit and drills at least one hole 2 1/2” deep on the sunny side of the tree. The second follows behind. He or she will sterilize each tap then hammer it in the and attach the pail and cover. The cover gives the pail protection from fragile winter bark and, god

Dominion & Grimm for generations the most common name in the bush.
Dominion & Grimm for generations the most common name in the bush.

forbid, rain. With the easiest areas, tapped collection can begin and the tappers head to more distant or difficult terrain. Our crew chief Don, believes we’ve tapped 450 trees this season and is already talking about more next year!

The crew has so far avoided modern commercial collection. There are no plastic tubes here. Collecting by hand is great exercise, puts one in touch with the silence of the forest and adds additional pride in the final product. That being said this year’s snow conditions give one pause. The snow is like slush four feet deep. Hills are crossed and the sap is emptied into pails.  Even with snowshoes you are

Donald examines the filters at the collection tank
Donald examines the filters at the collection tank

going to go in up to a hip. I say hip because, without notice, it’s always one leg that goes down and even as you fall the only thought is not to lose a drop of the precious sap. The merits of commercial methods is obvious but I’ve joined a stubborn bunch.

In remote areas, the buckets are emptied into barrels for collection by snowmobile and trailer. Close to the sugarshack you’re on your own and must carry the buckets back. At the shack the sap is poured  through a double filter into a large barrel. From there it will be pumped up behind the shack into a covered holding tank. At this point gravity feeds it inside to the evaporator.

TheEvaporatorIf you haven’t picked up on it yet, this operation is pretty ‘old school’. The evaporator is, of course, wood fired and that demands care. Cut wood must be available. The furnace must be fed and fed properly. The boiling sap must be monitored. A good boil is required but, imagine your kitchen stove, you do not want dozens of gallons of sticky fluid boiling over. The experienced eye of the crew chief is never far away, which is a good thing. The crew chief will also grade the final product. Based on colour and then viscosity this is something that I have yet to take part in. The season is still young.

TheBoilThe final part of the process is the bottling. This will be familiar to anyone who’s canned or made wine. The keys here are proper sterilization and a good tight seal.

I am sure I have left out so much that I already take for granted. I am exhausted and will return to the bush, with luck, everyday until the end of the season. Forgive me.

At the same time I encourage everyone with access to maples to make their own syrup if only in your own kitchen. It can be a fun family project and I can also say one of the very best syrups I tasted last year was homemade.

Thanks to the crew: Donald, Ian, Roseanne and the dozens of others who help out.

The evaporator firebox.
The evaporator firebox.

Review – West Coast Seeds

Review by GaddAboutEating. Photo from West Coast Seeds

West Coast Seeds

4930A Elliott Street
Ladner, BC, British Columbia
Canada, V4K 2Y1

www.westcoastseeds.com

Don’t worry – it’s not just for West Coast People.   This is the place to go for organic seeds and gardening supplies and they are available online or in person.  I started using West Coast Seeds years ago.   At that point they weren’t in their fancy store.   It was a shop in a barn on a farm property.   The  selection was very good  and the service has always been consistently great:  pleasant, helpful, and well-informed staff.

West Coast Seeds believes in the principles of organic gardening and as such they only sell untreated seeds.  They have wonderful varieties of heritage, heirloom and organic seeds for your vegetables and flower gardens.

The staff is wonderfully knowledgeable and incredibly helpful.  It’s an interesting experience listening to their conversations with other customers and you scan the racks of seeds – what you overhear are some interesting tidbits about other’s gardening practices and concerns as well as getting the sense that all the staff are genuinely interested in helping and are very passionate about what they do.

sunflower

Most years I start my seeds super early and fill up my tiny kitchen table and shelves with trays and lights.   This year I’ve managed to show some restraint – only because of my incredibly busy school schedule – and am about 2 months behind.   Which probably puts me right in line with when normal people would start.

I haven’t yet taken my Spring trip out to their store but good news is:  I have a selection of seeds that I’ve been collecting for years; I’m seeing West Coast Seed displays in my local garden centres; and – something you internet people will love – they have an amazing catalogue and webstore.

The website is an amazing resource itself.
The site includes planting guides for all areas of Canada  [LINK]  as well as many other informative guides, instructive articles and blogs, and glossaries.

Happy Spring!!!

West Coast Seeds
West Coast Seeds

Food for Thought – Seeds

The theme for March is: Seeds, Spring, and Promise. Food follows the cycle of the world and we follow both. Both globalization and the industrialization of food (an idea that makes me shudder as I type the phrase) allow us to eat what we want, when we want it, granting the illusion that we have mastered food and conquered its cycle. I’m not sure why that idea makes anyone happy.

BIGTomato2There is something wonderful in living in sync with the world, with having that first crisp apple right off the tree, or the thick slices of newly picked beefsteak tomato that makes a perfect sandwich.  There is something magical about taking that fresh, living produce, inhaling its perfection as you eat and there is a feeling of purpose and anticipation in preparing that fresh food for later consumption through the year.
Nothing tastes like your own, home-canned produce, or dried fruit, or frozen vegetables. Why am I writing about preserving homegrown produce in March? Because this is when it begins. The apple, the tomato and all other produce begin as seeds and through much of Canada, we’re starting those seeds now. Today I’m going to pick up some potting soil and start some seeds. Some zucchini, cucumbers, eggplants, peppers, kale, spinach, herbs, peas, beans, carrots, radishes, squash, lots of lettuce, tomatoes… garlic, lots and lots of garlic.

It’s all in the strategic planning. I like to do a lot of tomatoes, but won’t be putting in more than a few plants, as they ripen unpredictably and rot relatively quickly. Since I don’t want to have a huge load of fresh tomatoes on my hands when there isn’t time to deal with them, for $25-$30 I’ll buy a bushel. Meanwhile, I’ll plant one or two each of beefsteaks, cherry tomatoes and some romas for freshly made sandwiches, salads and sauces…and for the wonderful things that get made out of green tomatoes, like chutney, mincemeat and hotdog relish.

FirstCucumber1I’ll grow some pickling cucumbers because pickles are so easy to make that I could have a pot of jars on while having my morning coffee…and I love homemade pickles. One of the tricks for making perfectly crispy pickles is to add a grape leaf or two to the jar. Thankfully, the garden has a grapevine…which reminds me, this year, I’m canning grape leaves early in the season. Not a lot, just a jar or two for the winter, just in case.

Yes, I can buy them, but why? They’re right there in the garden and it won’t take a lot of time to pick and prepare them. With a headset, I can do most of that while talking with a friend (or even a client); I know exactly what will be in them when they’re used and let’s not forget that previously mentioned wonderfulness and earthy groundedness of the homemade…plus, if I take dolmathes made from grape leaves from the garden to a party, guaranteed, it adds to the charm of the presentation when others know that’s part of the story.

Overall, it’ll take me 20-30 minutes of actual effort to get the leaves and prepare them in the jars, where it’s often taken longer to buy them, given that there are no Greek specialty stores in the neighbourhood any longer…later in the year of course, I’ll also be making grape jelly.

Baby Eggplant
Baby Eggplant

Eggplants are surprisingly abundant and especially lovely. Perhaps I’ll grow some extra plants this year and research some antipasti recipes for canning as well.

Hot peppers are made into Thai curries, tom yum and other sauces, as well as 3 bean chili (which is made in bulk for the freezer) and dried on strings. Some of the dried peppers from last year will make it into this year’s pickles. Sweet peppers are sliced and frozen on trays, and one or two red bells will find it’s way into the Thai red curry for colour. This reminds me…I also need to plant lemongrass!

Radicchio
Radicchio

Spinach is incredibly lovely when grown fresh, and this year I’ll put in a lot more to try and have a more continuous supply…possibly even enough to freeze a bit. Kale starts producing early, grows right into November, and freezes well, especially when vacuum-sealed to reduce the volume. The hard squashes like acorn and pumpkin will store well.

The tomatoes, when I buy them, will get made into sauce for the freezer and also plain canned tomatoes in jars, while the skins and cores left over from both will be used, in combination with apples from the front-yard tree, to make ketchup. The plain canned tomatoes will get used to make soup on nasty days. That’s a recipe that I’ll be sharing next year about this time, after we’ve gone through canning the tomatoes…because there is no point making this soup with even the very best commercially canned tomatoes.

If you have time or space for only a few small plants, then grow herbs. Herbs are the best investment of time and space, especially when you consider that the best price per bunch ever is $1.50, of which one may use only a portion and then toss…while a flat of plants costs about the same and will last through the entire summer.

Garlic01

First though, let’s get out there and buy some nice potting soil and GMO-free seeds.