Even as the weather begins to cool, there are still plenty of opportunities to enjoy dining al fresco
thanks to several heated patios in the Waterloo Region!
Farmer and organic maple syrup producer Kevin Snyder has a formula for calculating what the volume of the year’s sap harvest will be and the quality of the luscious sweet syrup produced – and he delivers it with the gently wry inflection that only a seasoned farmer can.
“If you can accurately forecast the weather,” Snyder says, “I can give you an accurate estimate of the quality of this year’s maple syrup.”
Kevin and Anne Snyder own and operate Snyder Heritage Farms, a fifth-generation local institution in Bloomingdale practicing sustainable forest management and using reverse osmosis to reduce sap to syrup before hot-packing, labeling, and grading and marking it for traceability.
There is another popular equation that Snyder and other producers cite regarding the warm days and cold nights that will spur maple trees’ sap production and release. “That’s five-above and five-below,” says Snyder adding that those two daily temperatures, on either side of 0C., are perfect.
Albeit important, all of that is merely the administrative stuff behind the production: maple syrup is a year-long favourite condiment and ingredient and one with a very long history that needs to be acknowledged.
Long before Europeans arrived in North America and introduced the honeybee, and before cane sugar found its way here from the West Indies, Canada’s indigenous peoples were drawing sap from trees and creating the sweet elixir: maple syrup was Canada’s original sweetener.
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Today, of course, maple syrup is hugely popular in many parts of the world, and Ontario and Quebec are major global producers. Maple syrup in North America is graded as Golden, Amber, Dark, or Very Dark – the former having “delicate taste,” the latter “strong taste.”
A pandemic victim yet another year, the world-famous Elmira Maple Syrup Festival, which usually runs in April and brings crowds in the thousands, will be a virtual festival this year – but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of local maple syrup to be enjoyed.
The shuttering of festivals for the season will mean sales and marketing for local maple syrup will likely see a slight decrease, according to Snyder. But he encourages maple syrup-lovers to look for their favourite producers, contact them and head to their locations for on-farm sales. “Visit the farm,” Snyder says. (Check out Ontario Maple for producer information.)
Like any reduction – a large bulk of grapes to make wine, a volume of cacao pods ground down into chocolate, a whole lot of milk that becomes a pound of butter – maple syrup is delicious because it is reduced and its flavours are concentrated: in fact, to make one part syrup, you need to start with 40 parts of sap.
The process in the classic method is a lot of work, notes chef Aicha Smith-Belghaba of Six Nations of the Grand River Territory; she works with pre-contact Haudenosaunee ingredients to show total health benefits to mind, body and soul. And, she recalls as a kid her family tapping the trees, collecting the sap and boiling it.
“They then cut the wood for a big fire and boiling the sap,” Smith-Belghaba says. “It takes hours, and it’s definitely a labour of love.”
Most often thought of as a pancake and waffle topping, maple syrup fits the bill for savoury dishes as well, according to Smith-Belghaba. “Try it as a glaze for squash or pair it with Dijon mustard on roasted chicken. If you’re looking for a little more of a technique-driven dish, I’d suggest making a ravioli with a ricotta-maple filling and sauce it with a sage butter.”
At Nuestro 88, a Kitchener restaurant with Filipino-Central American fusion, chef-owner Paul Masbad uses the amber elixir in what he describes as “behind the scenes.”
“It’s great in pies, sauces or condiments and marinades, as well as dessert toppings,” he says.
Steve Allen, Little Louie’s and Lily Ruth Catering owner in Cambridge and culinary instructor at Conestoga College, suggests adding a sprinkle of cinnamon, lemongrass or ginger to elevate the flavours even more when using maple syrup for roasting Brussels sprouts.
“When the sprouts are two minutes from done, drizzle syrup over them and pop them back in the oven with those seasonings,” he says. “Crazy delicious!”
Growing up in Trinidad, corporate executive chef Shenelle Arielle Neils had little idea of real maple syrup, she says.
“I thought proper maple syrup was Aunt Jemima’s. We saw nothing there like the real stuff at the regular grocery stores, and I didn’t try real maple syrup until I moved to Canada 10 years ago,” she says. “When I had a sore throat, my mom sent me outside to pick a lime off our tree, and she would mix it with honey. Now I make that same concoction for my son but with dark maple syrup.”
The former Bhima’s Warung chef notes that maple syrup can be a healthier ingredient too. “I am used to bold flavours in my culture, and I love maple syrup for that very reason,” she says. “But it also feels better to use a more natural sweetener that has some vitamins and minerals like zinc and potassium.”
For cooking, she suggests an amped-up lemonade with a little bourbon. “I always use maple syrup as my sweetener with a little dash of Angostura bitters. It adds a sweet balance.”
She also loves simple chicken legs with maple syrup, yellow mustard and Kozlik’s Triple Crunch. “Add puréed garlic and shallots, olive oil, kosher salt and black pepper. Grill and brush repeatedly with the sauce. It will be a massive hit!”
A hit, indeed. More than just a condiment, maple syrup can boost all aspects of your plate. Despite the absence of local maple syrup festivals – yet again – 2021 is shaping up to be a good year and similar to 2020, according to Snyder. So take advantage.
“It’s always a guessing game,” he says of this first fresh harvest of the spring. “It looks favourable for a normal crop, and the quality of the maple syrup will be similar to other good years.”
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Andrew Coppolino is a writer-broadcaster, and is a food columnist with CBC Radio in Waterloo Region. Following a stint as a cook at a restaurant in Kitchener, Andrew chose to work with food from the other side of the kitchen pass. As a food writer, he is dedicated to promoting and nurturing culinary businesses and advocating for local chefs and restaurants. Andrew’s work has been published in newspapers and magazines across Canada, the United States and England. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.