Happy National Maple Syrup Day: A look at how Indigenous peoples first used maple syrup
Can you imagine how pancakes or waffles from your favourite diner would taste like without maple syrup? It will be difficult! Maple syrup makes these breakfast staples extra delicious. We celebrate how we love this sweet concoction by way of National Maple Syrup Day on December 17.
One does not really need to think long and hard to find out how important the maple tree is for Canadians. Just look at our flag: it bears a red maple leaf, and that’s recognizable around the world. One quick glance at it, and everyone knows it means Canada. Maple trees are admired for their fantastic ability to withstand drought during dry months, as well as provide shade during the hot and humid days.
Of course, for those more aesthetically minded, maple trees are a favourite because they are a sight to behold once autumn sets in as their leaves can turn into a plethora of wonderful colours: yellow, orange, red, and all shades of brown. Take a photo underneath a maple tree during the peak of the fall season, and it will be totally “Instagrammable.”
There are 13 species of maple trees which are native to Canada, but only three of them are a source of maple sap, which eventually is turned into maple syrup. These three are namely sugar maple, black maple, and red maple. Out of these three, the red maple is the primary. You can easily tell a sugar maple by its densely rounded crown. During fall, the leaves turn into an alluring shade of yellow-orange. A sugar maple tree can grow as high as 80 feet though the average size is 50 feet.
To derive sap from a maple tree, the tree needs to be about 25 cm in diameter, which is usually means the tree is between 30 to 60 years old. In addition, specific weather conditions are necessary for an ideal sap flow. Daytime temperatures should reach above 0°C and overnight lows should be below 0°C. Fortunately in Canada, where brutal cold winters are common, these specific temperatures are not hard to come by.
The maple sap has had a long history with Canada, even before the country was created. Aboriginal people relied on the maple tree sap as a food source. This is confirmed in the 1609 book by Marc Lescarbot titled “HIstoire de la Nouvelle France,” where he wrote that indigenous peoples would get juice from trees and derive a sweet-tasting liquid. These were indigenous peoples of the Eastern Woodlands, including the Abenaki, Haudenosaunee, and Mi’kmaq.
Settlers copied this technique by bearing a hole in the maple trees in the sprig, collecting the liquid, and boiling it for a long time.
On the other hand, it’s believed that the Anishinaabe started the technique of maple curing for food preservation. This was how their communities kept food stored for winter months when food was scarce.
By the late 1700s and early 1800s, maple sugar production began among settlers, and the rest as they say is history. Today, Canada accounts for 75 per cent of the global market for maple syrup.
Maple sap production schedules vary though from year to year, depending on a lot of conditions. For most maple syrup manufacturers, they look into how high wild leeks are or listen for the call of woodcocks to pinpoint when the season ends.