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Bethany Sheffer maneuvered a hot rock into a hollowed-out log filled with maple sap on Saturday, March 26, at Sharon Audubon. Photo by Patrick L. Sullivan

Hydrometers, hot rocks and Whoopie Pies

SHARON — Visitors to Sharon Audubon on Saturday, March 26, received a tour of the maple syrup production facility, got a look at how maple sap was processed in earlier times, and were tempted by treats, sugary and otherwise.

Volunteer guide Joanne Wasti took a group down a maple-lined trail, stopping every few yards to make a point about maple trees and how to get sap from them.

She said that maples need to be roughly 40 years old, or have a diameter between 10 and 12 inches, before they can be tapped. Bigger trees can support multiple taps, and older trees should not be tapped at all.

“If the trees are really old, tapping is a little stressful.”

Wasti gave a little history lesson, too. She said in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Quakers advocated using maple sugar instead of cane sugar from the Caribbean. The latter product was produced with slave labor.

Wasti was asked why sap is best collected in February and March. She said the ideal situation for sap flow is when the days get “well above freezing” but nights drop back below the freezing point.

And those days occur most often in February and March.

At the time of peak flow, the sap buckets are collected and emptied two or three times per day.

By the time of the tour, however, the sap-collecting season was winding down.

At the sugar shack (formerly the ice house for the farm where Sharon Audubon is located), Wendy Miller, who is the education program manager at Sharon Audubon, presided over a large, wood-fired apparatus. Miller was occasionally obscured by clouds of really good-smelling steam as she explained how maple sap is turned into maple syrup.

It takes roughly 40 gallons of sap to get a gallon of syrup, she explained. “All we need to do is boil it. It turns into syrup by itself.”

But the people tending the apparatus need to be alert. The goal is to get the sap (which is 3% sugar) to turn into syrup (at 67% sugar).

Boil it too long, however, and the result, while still delicious, is not what anyone wants to try to pour on a stack on pancakes.

“You have to check it often or it turns into candy.”

When the syrup reaches a temperature of 219 degrees Fahrenheit, it is almost finished. A hydrometer is then used to determine the sugar content.

If everything is right, the sap is then processed through a press that has seven filters, to remove what is known as “sugar sand” — minerals, mostly, plus any bugs that made it that far.

“You don’t have to do this at home,” Miller explained. “But your syrup might be a little murky.”

Then the group took a short walk into the woods, where Bethany Sheffer (volunteer coordinator and naturalist) presided over a campfire that had an iron pot filled with sap suspended above it, and a hollowed-out log on the muddy ground. The log’s rectangular hollow space was also filled with sap.

Sheffer demonstrated how Native Americans cooked their sap. Using two sturdy, forked sticks, she maneuvered a hot rock out from the campfire, and gingerly placed it into the hollow log. This took a couple of tries, and the sap splashed about a bit.

Next up was the Colonial method — an iron pot suspended over the fire. This method was not without technical difficulties either, as Sheffer noticed the counterweight had come detached.

Then it was back down the trail to the Tables of Tasty Temptation.

No sooner had a reporter ankled into view, somewhat ahead of the group, than a cry rang out: “May I interest you in a Whoopie Pie?”

The reporter had no idea what a Whoopie Pie was, but just thinking about it reminded him he forgot to take his blood pressure and cholesterol medications earlier that morning.

He did buy a jar of maple syrup and lemon salad dressing, however.

For more information, go to www.sharon.audubon.org.

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