Prairie farm kids follow the sugar rush

The lure of running maple tree sap can become a powerful temptation for youngsters with thoughts of free candy dancing in their heads.  |  Alma Barkman photo

The prospect of turning trees into candy was too tempting to ignore for a couple of young farmers with their eyes on the prize

I thought Mom’s molasses cake covered in thick brown sugar icing flavoured with imitation maple was about as good as anything I’d ever tasted until an uncle brought us a box of real maple sugar candy.

Each piece was in the shape of a leaf, and Mom rationed them out sparingly, carefully cutting along the embossed veins of each candy in order to divide them up fairly.

As I watched the tip of her sharp knife slice through each piece, I took particular note of the shape of those leaves. Did we, by chance, have any trees in our big front yard that would grow leaves like that, come spring? And how did you make candy from trees anyway?

The thought arose again a few months later. In school we were studying about life in early French Canada. One particular story told how the pioneer women in Quebec picked and dried wild strawberries for winter use, and then sweetened them with maple syrup. My taste buds nearly drowned in my saliva. Maple syrup and strawberries — two treats in one dish seemed too good to be true.

Great minds think alike and when spring came, my teenage brother in high school had an idea. Apparently some of those trees in our front yard were first cousins of the Ontario sugar maples, and he was going to tap them for sap.

He found in me a faithful advocate for his plan, and I followed him on his rounds, our boots breaking through the crusty snow. He leaned on the drill as the bit gnawed a hole through the bark of the first tree. After boring a hole about two inches deep into the tree trunk, he gently shaped a small piece of tin to form a spout and secured it in the hole. Just above it, he pounded in a spike on which we hung a Rogers gallon syrup pail to catch the sap.

Before long, most of the trees in the front yard were festooned with pails. Now all we had to do was wait for the sap to start running.

As luck would have it, a chinook blew in overnight, and by the next afternoon, the sap was drip, drip, dripping into the pails when I got home from school. We had no idea what to do with the watery sap, but one look at it and Mom knew it had to be boiled down if it was ever going to become the right consistency. We emptied the pails into her biggest soup pot, stoked up the fire in the kitchen stove and waited.

Supper came and went. Dawdling over my homework, I was glad of the excuse to carry in more wood. The house began to feel awfully warm for that time of year. The steam from the rapidly boiling sap was condensing on the cold windowpanes and running down into little puddles on the sills. Mom mopped them up with towels as we listened to the CBC news at 9 p.m.

I lingered over my bedtime snack. Mom completed the nightly ritual of baiting the mousetrap with Velveeta cheese and carefully placed it behind the kitchen stove. She soaked the yeast cakes for tomorrow’s batch of bread.

My brother and I carried in more wood.

Dad went off to bed. I was all but ready to do the same when Mom peered into the kettle and declared that it was time to pour the syrup into a smaller pot.

My eyelids drooping with sleep, I sat on a chair by the kitchen stove watching the pale gold syrup bubbling in the white enamel saucepan edged in red.

Just as I was nodding off, Mom reached for the potholder. As she tipped the saucepan, a few teaspoons of boiling syrup dribbled into the hollow of a Pyrex saucer and slowly hardened into candy.

I looked at it in dismay.

After tapping all those trees, carrying in all those pails of sap, toting in all that wood for the fire, after sitting up half the night watching the syrup boil, was this all we got to show for it? But then I watched as the tip of Mom’s knife sliced through the little circle of candy, unselfishly dividing it in half just for my brother and me. Very cautiously, I bit into my share. Yummy.

We had done it. We had actually made some real maple sugar candy.

I fell asleep with the taste of it still lingering on my tongue.

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