The Sappening, Part Two: Turning Fire To Steam

Apart from a couple of gloriously warm days, winter’s death throes have been pretty assertively shitty. On Monday, the first day of sugaring, the sun felt warm enough that I was able to work outside for a few hours as I tended the fire and kept an eye on the sap’s progress so Danny could mix a record inside. The fire needs stoking every twenty minutes to maintain a rolling boil; that’s not a long enough interval for him to sink into his magic studio reverie, but it’s easy for me to get up from the laptop and throw a few logs in between sentences. And I obviously have my author photo taken care of, so there’s that.

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Photo by Danny Blume

It did get a mite nippy when the sun sank below the trees, so I repaired indoors to continue. Besides the wood stove, where the day’s boil finished reducing, there was also Max, the enormous and awesome Maine Coon cat, who hasn’t fully warmed to me yet, but decided that I was worthy to love on him for a bit. I miss having a cat.

Because this was the first day, it took Danny a while to get the fire going. We spent an hour or so a few days before shoveling out the fireplace and getting the site ready—lengthening the block walls so the entire pan is over fire, whacking at frozen ground to level it up a bit—but there was still the matter of replacing the galvanized metal roofing that lines the inside, protecting the blocks and reflecting heat back into the fire. Plus, bringing all that frozen ground, metal, block, and sap up to full temperature is not a quick process.

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Day one reduced one 30-gallon barrel down to a stock pot’s worth, which he finished inside after dark. It’s a bit piney, since we had left a small opening at the back to let the fire have more air and some soot landed in the pan, but still delightful. The second day, though much colder, was much more productive. two full 30-gallon barrels made it all the way to near-syrup thanks to the roaring fire Danny lit before dawn and which I then stoked for most of the afternoon.

Those bubbles up top show how it looks when it’s time to pour it off; letting it reduce any further means that the bottom of the pan gets perilously close to being exposed at the high corner, which leads to almost instant burning. While a soupçon of it lends an amazing burnt caramel taste to the result, I don’t recommend trying it at home; the one time it happened was an accident and he thought for sure he’d ruined the whole batch. Burnt caramel should be made on a stovetop, not a raging inferno.

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I spent my non-writing time designing the steel sugaring stove we’re going to weld this summer as an upgrade to this humble structure so next year’s rig will be much more efficient. We talked about rigging some gravity-fed lines from the trees to right near the stove as well. It’s a sickness, sap, a ratchet that only moves in one direction: more sugar.

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