"It's maple-syrup time" in Germantown

Christina Moresi, at historic Wyck house in Germantown, taps a sugar maple. This time of year is typically sap season, but Phila. weather hasn't been typical.
Christina Moresi, at historic Wyck house in Germantown, taps a sugar maple. This time of year is typically sap season, but Phila. weather hasn't been typical. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 21, 2014

Here in the heart of Germantown, we're salivating for sap, the precious, watery liquid that drips and dribbles out of maple trees and, with considerable effort, is transformed into magical maple syrup.

We're at Wyck, the 18th-century house with a rose garden, a market farm, and most important, a stand of 70-foot sugar maples.

"It's maple-syrup time," says Christina Moresi, Wyck's educator and leader of our unlikely urban sugaring party, which includes Elizabeth Belk, Wyck's horticulturist, and Jeff Eckel, the caretaker and beekeeper.

We're in luck this morning. Some kind soul has shoveled the path from house to yard, so we gather our gear and head out: tape measure, because the trees we tap need to be mature, with a diameter of at least 12 inches; drill, to make a two-inch hole in the tree; spile, a spigot-like gizmo that gets hammered into the hole; one- and two-gallon buckets to catch the sap; and hooks to hold the buckets.

Last year, with Moresi's arrival, Wyck made its first foray into the world of sugaring, which is - correctly - more closely associated with Canada and Vermont than with Pennsylvania.

Canada produced 10 million gallons of maple syrup in 2013, about 75 percent of the world's supply. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Vermont is tops in the United States, with 1.3 million gallons, followed by New York, Maine, Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania (134,000 gallons, sold for about $43 a gallon), New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Connecticut.

Wyck's inaugural effort produced maybe a dozen four-ounce jars of syrup. But by all accounts, it was mighty fine - sweet, light, complex.

Eckel ate his by the spoonful, as he does the wildflower honey from his bees, five colonies on Wyck's 2 1/2 acres and 15 others scattered about the region. Moresi, a syrup-maker since 2006, put hers on French toast and in tea, oatmeal, and baked goods. She also made maple popcorn and taffy with young campers at Wyck, where nine generations of the Wistar-Haines family lived from 1690 to 1973.

But Belk, clearly, is an evolving maple chef.

She made a sweet, tangy maple bacon jam with cumin, vinegar infused with hips from Wyck's antique roses, red pepper flakes, strong coffee, and bourbon that's indescribably yummy on her maple cream scones. She also likes maple syrup mayonnaise and maple mustard for sandwiches and pork.

Last year, Belk, a newcomer to sugaring, says she was "shocked to realize how much sap comes out. We were scrambling all over the place for containers."

This year, all is calm.

In a mere 10 minutes, Moresi measures the diameters of two 40-year-old sugar maples. (They're the perfect size.) Eckel drills the holes. Moresi hammers in the taps and hangs the buckets. The wait begins.

This time of year, with temperatures typically in the 20s at night and over 40 during the day, is optimal sap season, which lasts about a month. Unfortunately, in this atypical Philadelphia winter, today - at 23 degrees - is too cold.

This could take a while. So we head inside to Wyck's tiny kitchen to talk about the hard part of this operation - boiling the sap down to its syrupy essence.

"It takes forever," Belk said.

Hours, anyway, depending on how many pots are boiling on the stove. Many is the operative word here, for it takes about 40 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup.

Mindful of this lopsided ratio, Moresi last year added her dad's huge "gravy" (tomato sauce) pot to her stove-top arsenal, which covered all four burners for an entire day.

Vigilance is key. The pots need to be at a constant boil until the sap water evaporates, leaving just the sweet stuff at the bottom. Best to do this outside, but that isn't always possible, especially in the city.

"I did it in my apartment, and by the end," Moresi said, "there was a sugary coating all over the stove and a day's worth of steam on the walls."

Commercial sugaring is more complicated, of course, and things are changing there. In January, at the urging of the International Maple Syrup Institute, which seeks a uniform syrup standard, Vermont became the first state to change its decades-old grading system from Grades A and B to four types of Grade A - golden, amber, dark, and very dark. The move was not universally embraced.

And last fall, Vermont researchers introduced a new device to vacuum sap from the stems of young maple trees, an innovation that could revolutionize syrup production and take it out of the forest.

But here at Wyck, the time-honored buckets and taps will forever rule. "This way may be a pain in the butt," Moresi said, "but I can't imagine vacuuming out a tree."


Maple Bacon Jam

Makes 12 ounces

1 pound bacon

1 large purple onion, thinly sliced

4 cloves garlic

1/3 cup currants (or chopped prunes or raisins)

1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1/2 cup rose hip vinegar (or apple cider vinegar or white vinegar)

3/4 cup strong coffee

1/4 cup brown sugar

1/4 cup maple syrup

1/4 cup bourbon

1/2 teaspoon cumin

1. Cook the bacon in a large braiser/Dutch oven. Remove bacon, and lay on some paper towels to drain. Pour off the grease except 2 tablespoons. Add the onions, and sauté until translucent.

2. Press the cloves of garlic through a garlic press, and add to the onions.

3. Add the red pepper flakes and the currants, and cook for one minute.

4. Meanwhile, chop the bacon into 1-inch pieces and add.

5. Add the vinegar, coffee, brown sugar, maple syrup, bourbon, and cumin, reduce the heat, and simmer 1 to 2 hours, stirring regularly so the sugar/syrup do'esn't burn.

6. Pulse in a food processor until it is a chunky, spreadable consistency. Can be stored in the refrigerator for 4 weeks, or frozen.

- From Elizabeth Belk

Per serving (based on 24): 133 calories; 7 grams protein; 7 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams sugar;

8 grams fat; 21 milligrams cholesterol; 438 milligrams sodium; trace dietary fiber.


Maple Cream Scones

Makes 16 mini scones

2 cups flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/4 cups heavy cream

1/3 cup maple syrup

1 teaspoon heavy cream for glaze

1. Preheat oven to 425. Mix flour, baking powder, and salt.

2. In a separate bowl, combine the heavy cream and maple syrup, and add to dry ingredients. Using a spatula, mix just enough to moisten the dry ingredients, and form a ball.

3. For mini scones, divide dough into 2 balls, place the first ball of dough between two pieces of waxed paper, and, using a rolling pin, roll the dough into a circle 3/4-inch thick. Remove the wax paper, and cut the circle into eight wedges. (You can lightly flour the ball of dough if it's too sticky.) Do the same for the second ball of dough.

4. Place wedges onto an ungreased cookie sheet, and brush the tops with heavy cream. Bake for 10-12 minutes until bottom is lightly browned.

- From Elizabeth Belk

Per scone: 108 calories; 2 grams protein; 17 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams sugar; 4 grams fat; 13 milligrams cholesterol; 79 milligrams sodium; no dietary fiber.


Maple French Toast

Makes 2 slices

or one serving

Two slices of any leftover loaf of bread (except rye); a new loaf should sit out overnight

1 egg

1/4 cup of plain yogurt (or sour cream)

1 1/2 teaspoons of maple syrup

Milk as needed

Cinnamon pinch

Salt, to taste

1. Ideally bread should be cut into one-inch by one-inch batons (fingers). Whisk the egg, add the yogurt and maple syrup. If it seems too thick, add a little milk. It should be liquid but not watery. Add a pinch of cinnamon, and salt to taste. Soak the bread in the egg mixture.

2. Heat an ungreased nonstick pan. Place the bread fingers in the pan, and reduce heat to medium. Cook until each side is lightly browned.

- From Elizabeth Belk

Per serving: 212 calories; 12 grams protein; 24 grams carbohydrates; 14 grams sugar; 7 grams fat; 172 milligrams cholesterol; 257 milligrams sodium; trace dietary fiber.


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