Thursday, May 2, 2013

Making Smokey, Sweet Syrup From New England Maple Trees And A Backyard Fire Pit

Kiernan Majerus-Collins / youthjournalism.org
Here, two maple trees are tapped at once, with tubing from each tree leading to the same sap-collecting bucket.

By Alan Burkholder
Junior Reporter
TERRYVILLE, Connecticut, U.S.A. – If you've ever had pancakes or waffles or french toast for breakfast, then you probably have a good idea of what maple syrup is.
If you've ever gone to buy some real maple syrup at the store, you also probably have a good idea of how expensive it is. Here's a hint: VERY.  So, it's little to no wonder why someone would take it upon himself to make his own batch.
That someone is Terryville resident Paul Mantoni, who has been making his own syrup for three years.
As the maple sugaring season came to a close early this spring, Mantoni took time out to show a visitor exactly how it works.
Kiernan Majerus-Collins / youthjournalism.org
After drilling a hole in the tree, Paul Mantoni uses a hammer to insert the tap into the tree.
Syrup making, Mantoni said, is a “very simple process” which is also “very easy to get started.”
The syrup making is mostly done towards the end of winter, when the day is above freezing and the night is below freezing. The production period ends in spring, when the weather turns warmer.
"Once you see red buds," Mantoni said, "you're finished."
He has plenty of maple trees to work with, and collecting the sap from the trees is the simplest part of the process.
Kiernan Majerus-Collins / youthjournalism.org
An overhead view of the route the sap takes through the tubing to the bucket below.
First, Mantoni drills a hole into the tree and attaches a tap and a tube to let the sap flow into a nearby bucket. After letting it pump for about a day, he removes the tap and plugs up the hole using a round stick of wood.
Job well done, right? Well, not exactly.
The sap of the maple tree, in its raw state, is not very sweet, due to being mostly water. There is a taste of sugar, but the sap requires a lot of time to boil before it starts looking and tasting like syrup.
According to Mantoni, it usually takes about eight hours.
Kiernan Majerus-Collins / youthjournalism.org
Aaron Mantoni carries firewood from an outdoor shed to the fire pit, where the sap is boiling.
To boil his sap, Mantoni, with the help of his sons Owen and Aaron, has set up a basic fire pit in the backyard. He pours a new bucket of sap in about every 40 minutes.
His method, Mantoni said, is a “very rough way of doing it,” since the pouring of sap is usually controlled in a more steady fashion.
Kiernan Majerus-Collins / youthjournalism.org
A wood fire, enclosed by cement cinderblocks, blazes beneath a shallow, open pan of sap. There are chairs around the fire pit, and in the yard behind the fire pit is some antique playground equipment.
Standing near the fire, it was possible to detect a hint of sugar to the smoke coming off of the fire pit.
Between the hand-built fire pit, the flocks of chickens and ducks running all over the yard, and an antique collection of playground equipment, it is clear that Mantoni and his family are running a very humble operation, not particularly done with profit in mind.

Kiernan Majerus-Collins / youthjournalism.org
Maple sap boils in a shallow, uncovered pan over a wood fire. Sometimes a little ash from the fire gets into the sap, and Mantoni uses a strainer to remove it.
Aaron, an eighth grade student at Eli Terry Jr. Middle School, helps his father with boiling the sap, and clearly thinks of this as more of a hobby than anything.
Kiernan Majerus-Collins / youthjournalism.org
Father and son Paul and Aaron Mantoni,
each holding a bottle of their homemade
maple syrup, enjoy the time they spend
together boiling sap over the fire.
“I do it for fun,” Aaron said when asked about the process.
He wasn’t the only one thinking of this operation as a hobby that yields something sweet that can be shared with friends.
“The best part,” his dad said, "is giving it away."
It seems odd how such a labor-intensive task can be viewed as fun, but in the end, it's like when you cook your own dinner for the first time. It may not be as easy as ordering it, and the results may vary, but there is definitely something rewarding about doing it yourself.
If you have maple trees and plan to try something like this at home, Mantoni recommends starting with a small batch on the stove, preferably with a fan on.
Who knows? You may feel a heightened sense of self-satisfaction the next time you have pancakes.

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