Sweet spring tradition at Trumbull Nature Center

TRUMBULL — It’s not quite amber gold, but with a per-gallon price about 10 times that of gasoline, maple syrup might as well be.

“People always wonder why real maple syrup is so expensive, and there are a lot of reasons for it,” said Mark Ceneri, lead educator at the Trumbull Nature & Arts Center. “It all boils down to it being a seasonal product that’s very labor intensive to produce, and it has a very high fuel cost added to it.”

Ceneri, who has been producing his own maple syrup on property near his home for years, ran a pair of maple sugaring demonstrations Sunday at the center. This included tapping the 150-year-old maple in the center’s front yard and boiling the sap over an open fire.

For him, making maple syrup is a labor of love, with a heavy emphasis on “labor.” The process of making maple syrup is simple, but far from easy, he said.

“First, you need a sugar maple, because their sap has a relatively high sugar content, and they’re all over the place in New England,” Ceneri said. “All trees have sap, but it’s not always edible.”

With a suitable tree, or trees, the next step is to wait until late winter or early spring, Ceneri said. Collecting sap is dependent on cold nights and relatively warm days.

“February to March is about it for the season, only about six weeks,” he said. “The nights have to be below freezing and daytime highs have to be above. Some people look for the first robin or the first bulbs in bloom to signify spring’s arrival. For me, it’s when the sap starts running.”

The reason is due to pressure. During the day, the tree warms up and forces sap down toward the roots. At night, the cold causes contraction and actually creates a low-pressure vacuum that sucks the sap from the roots back into the trunk. Taps drilled into the tree drain the sap into buckets or a hose line.

“As it comes out of the tree, it’s clear and only very slightly sweeter than water,” Ceneri said.

The next step is to generate heat. Lots of it. For a long time.

It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup. Traditionally, that meant building a large fire inside a sugarhouse and heating the sap until 39 gallons boil away, leaving a gallon of syrup.

“It takes a long time,” Ceneri said. “At my house, I use propane and you can spend hours boiling away 10 gallons of sap, and when you’re done all you’ll have is a little layer of syrup at the bottom of the bucket, just enough to just skim your finger through.”

As the sap boils, the water evaporates, leaving behind the sugar and concentrating the flavor. This causes the temperature to rise slowly. Water won’t get any hotter than 212 degrees Fahrenheit, but as the sugar gets more concentrated the boiling point will slowly rise. When the temperature hits 219 degrees, it is officially syrup. This is the most important part in the process, since the temperature can quickly rise past 219 and burn the syrup.

“I’ve done it, and it’s enough to make you cry,” Ceneri said. “It can sit at 218 degrees for an hour, and then it seems that if you look away for a minute, it’s burnt and you’ve wasted all that time and effort.”

People’s reaction to their first experience with real maple syrup also can be interesting, he said. People who have never had it before tend to be surprised that maple syrup is thinner and less sweet than the corn syrup-based product sold in supermarkets.

“I grew up on it, so I never really liked the commercial syrups, but it all depends on what you’re used to,” he said.

But people who are used to mass-produced syrups have something in common with the earliest New England settlers, Ceneri said.

“The native people had been maple sugaring for thousands of years before the first Europeans arrived and the natives taught the Europeans how to do it,” he said. “But the Europeans didn’t really like it at first, because they were used to the refined sugar from the Caribbean trade. It took years and years before it became this regional specialty in the Northeast.”