A maple in April is a force to be reckoned with. The sap is flowing with a vengeance, squeezed by specialized cells that expand during the heat of day to create more pressure in a maple tree than in the inside of a car tire.
The people who make maple syrup, a hearty tribe called sugarmakers, capitalize on this pressure by drilling holes in the tree, a process known as tapping. Taps allow the tree’s pressure to push the sap, which the sugarmakers refer to as “water,” out of the tree and directly into a collection system.
Unlike most sugarmakers, David Knudson’s business, Montana Mapleworks, doesn’t have a sugarbush — that is, a stand of sugar maple trees — to call his own. Instead, he leads an itinerant sugarmaking life, scouting for maple trees and striking deals with the landowners to let him tap their trees. These benefactors include his urban neighbors; several Norway maples in the alley behind his house are, as we speak, quietly draining their sap into bags that Knudson will drain into an evaporator.
Around here, Norway maples are considered invasive species. I wanted to cut one down in our backyard. But the neighbors protested, saying they would miss its shade in summer. Now, thanks to Norway Maple Syrup, I have another reason to appreciate this interloper.
“I think it’s far superior in terms of caramel and depth,” Knudson told me. And each batch is different. Some are darker with more molasses flavor, while other batches are lighter with more butter caramel, depending on the exact time of year the sap starts flowing, how much the tree makes and temperature fluctuations during the cooking process.
In order to properly enjoy my new syrup, I was able to acquire a maple pecan pie recipe from my friend Sue Kost, who sells them at the farmers market. The substitution of maple syrup for corn syrup was a definite improvement. With maple, these little pies are buttery, nutty and drop-dead decadent.