This article was originally published in the Early Summer 2017 issue of Cottage Life magazine.
Nobody made maple syrup at Romany Wood when I was a child. It wasn’t till I was an adult, tramping through the leafless hardwood forest one spring—perhaps to collect some of the daffodils that grow there in clumps, planted nearly a century ago by my grandmother—that I first noticed the remnants of a sugar bush operation. In among the poison ivy and the wintergreen and the half-decomposed maple leaves were two rusted-out evaporation pans and a large barrel for collecting sap. I could just make out the remains of a sugar shack.
I asked my father about it. Like any good WASP, he never shares more information than is absolutely necessary, but he’ll tell you anything if you are clever enough to ask the right questions. He recalled helping out in the sugar bush as a child and the old horse that used to haul the sap barrels up the ramp to the sugar shack by sled. Predictably, there was some lingering resentment about the demise of the shack itself, which apparently had been pulled down by my father’s eldest brother without the blessings of his siblings.
Some of the maples were now mossy and old, hollowed out by insects and hungry woodpeckers. Others were too slender and young to be productive. But a good number were Goldilocks-sized, just right for tapping. So we flagged 10 trees in September and drew a map to find our way back in leafless winter. That Christmas, my husband, Anton, and I tucked a sugaring-off kit beneath the tree for the kids.
Our neighbour, a chef who had offered to “patrol” the woods for hooligans when we were in the city (he is a gun enthusiast), shook his head when we surprised him in February, arriving to drill spiles into trees. “Forty to one, the odds are against you,” he said. To boil a single litre of pancake topping, we would need about 40 litres of sap. And a great heaping of patience. We drilled the holes anyway and hung up our spiles and buckets with the giddy anticipation of children hanging Christmas stockings. Then we went back to the city and waited: for the snow-softening days of late winter, when the sun finally shines brighter again. For the creeks to gurgle and the sap to run.
Food for me has always been a way of knowing a landscape and connecting to it. Sugaring off would be another iteration on the same theme. Even a winter forest can reward those who know where to look for its fruits.
Nearly all the buckets were overflowing when we returned a few weeks later to collect the sap in repurposed bright blue canoe-tripping barrels. Some 80 litres on the first trip. We skied through the sunlit winter forest and took pictures of our rosy-cheeked children in their brightly coloured snowsuits as they posed winningly against a white-and-grey landscape that now seemed both familiar and strange. Familiar because I’d grown up here, spending 40 summers in the clearings by the lake. Strange because I’d spent so little time in these woods when they were blanketed in snow.
My English grandmother named the property Romany Wood because she fancied herself a gypsy and imagined one day running away with a caravan of Romanies. But her children and her children’s children were anything but: we all grew up in the same Ontario landscape, on the south shore of Lake Simcoe. In a landscape that had shaped us as much as we had shaped it. A landscape that, 40 to one, could nourish us still.
Toronto-based Sasha Chapman is a 2015-’16 Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT and former senior editor for The Walrus. She writes about food and environmental issues.