Sugar on Snow

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If my year were converted to hours, this, right now, would be maple o’clock.

It’s been years since I left the farm where my memories of maple were made but, when a hint of spring stirs the air, my thoughts always return to the gathering of sap from stately maples, the hours in the sugar house, with the fires fueling the evaporation, the sweet taste and smell of the air and the syrup itself.

One tradition was the making of a form of maple candy. It’s called maple taffy or, in Quebec, tire d’érable, but we called it “sugar on snow.” It was sweet and warm and sticky. It was the tangible, edible evidence of winter giving way to spring, of cold, dark days that starved the senses giving way to vibrancy and pure sweetness, of the sensory overload that spring brings.

My grandmother made sugar on snow in the farm kitchen. It was an event.

She boiled maple syrup until it reached what candy makers call the “soft ball” stage—that’s about 234 degrees F (112 C). When the syrup was the right temperature, she drizzled it over a pan of clean snow. When the hot syrup hit the cold snow, it firmed up to a taffy consistency. We would take a fork and peel it off the snow and pop it in our mouths. Warm, chewy maple, with cold, crunchy snow crystals!! Heaven on earth for a kid in the northeast!

I can remember a time when my grandparents invited the new church pastor and his family to the farm, to get acquainted with all of us, and our world. They weren’t from “around here” so my grandmother served them sugar on snow, as a proper initiation.

As is traditional, along with the sugar on snow, she also served her homemade doughnuts (don’t get me started, reminiscing about those!), sour pickles, and coffee. This may sound like an odd mix but the pickles and coffee were the perfect foils for the sweetness of the maple and the doughnuts.

The last time I had sugar on snow was at the Winterlude Festival in Ottawa. They pour the syrup in long lines in a trough of snow and use a popsicle stick to wind it up into lollipop form.

I took my first taste . . . all the memories came rushing back. I was a child, the kitchen was steamy, the snow had just been brought in, in a pan. The syrup was super hot—we kids were warned back. It streamed onto the snow. We waited a moment, until it set up a little, and, jostling to get the first bite, we peeled it off the snow with our forks.

And, in my heart, the clock once again struck maple.

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58 thoughts on “Sugar on Snow

  1. This was such a beautiful post – along with the link to your Dad’s newspaper photo and the story there. How wonderful that you have these sweet memories. Are those cans in the picture all from your family’s farm?

    • Thank you! They really are sweet memories. The cans in the photo are from my cousin’s collection. She and her husband still make maple syrup and she has a great collection of all the paraphernalia of the craft–it’s all displayed in the sugar house. And she only wants New York State maple cans–no Vermont or Quebec for her!

    • Thank you, Pam! This whole culture of “sugaring down” is particular to a very small geographic area and we think it’s pretty special. The maple smell is really distinctive–I wish I had the words to describe it.

    • The cans are fun–they are collected by my cousins and displayed in their sugar house, where the whole boiling down process happens. I love the bold graphics!

  2. I’m still trying to get my mind wrapped around sour pickles with doughnuts and coffee! The sugar on snow sounds wonderful; I’ve never heard of that before.

    • Really? You’re from New England and you’ve never heard of sugar on snow? I guess CT isn’t maple territory. You need a trip north during springtime!

  3. I definitely like telling time by your maple clock. My husband is from upstate New York, and the cider mills bring back fond memories for him. Interesting how our sense of taste brings back childhood memories.

  4. Yum. I am a huge fan of maple syrup. Some years my sister makes a deal with a hard-working, syrup-loving person who taps a bunch of trees on our family farm outside ithaca, NY. Then we get paid in syrup! I have never experienced this wonderful-sounding maple taffy…. Something to look forward to (along with homemade pickles and doughnuts!!!) Thank you for sharing these delicious memories.

    • That business of trading sap for syrup is a good one! I think a number of locals do the same thing and it makes everyone a winner. I hope you get a chance to try sugar on snow–it’s really, really sweet and probably more a treat for kids but, still, everyone should try it once! Thanks for stopping by!

  5. This is such an exotic memory to have! I cannot begin to imagine how wonderful it all must have been to you: the smell, the taste, the experience. The adult me goes ‘Ugh!’ at all that sugar being poured into you, but it seems to have done you no harm whatsoever! 🙂 I expect it is because it was all natural and real – and following on the heels of your long hard winters, which I have never experienced either. In comparison, life is almost boring living in a temperate zone!

    A beautifully written piece Kerri – I love when you share your memories!

    • Yes, it WAS a lot of sugar being poured into us but it was, at most, a once-a-year treat (the sugar on snow, that is. We had maple syrup much more often!) I cannot imagine a lot of what your experiences must have been either, in your moderate land. The things we haven’t experienced always seem exotic, I guess. Isn’t it wonderful that we can share them now, in this lovely space?

  6. I can almost taste the maple! And I’ll bet your grandmother could just tell–without a thermometer–when the syrup was the right temperature. Did she cook on a wood-burning stove too? My Mom tells how her mother could make mouth-watering candy over a wood-burning stove. No easy task to judge temperatures on one of those. Our grandmothers were amazing! Thanks for sharing your memory, Kerry!

    • Our grandmothers were indeed amazing! My memory is of my grandmother using the electric stove to boil the syrup down. We did have a wood stove in the kitchen, and she would put pots on it to keep food warm during dinner, but I don’t remember her cooking on it during my lifetime. I do remember that the oven door of that woodstove had been removed and, when my grandfather would come in from the barn on a winter morning, he’d pull a chair up and stick his sock feet in the oven, to warm them up!

  7. Excellent post, Kerry! 🙂
    You really brought back memories for me (and I’ve never even made or eaten sugar on snow)!
    THAT’S how great your writing is!
    😀
    (Have you ever considered writing a memoir? I’d be the first in line at your book signing.)
    😉

    • Absolutely! It’s funny to think that maple even has a smell because it’s basically sugar and I don’t think of sugar having a smell but the process of boiling the sap into syrup definitely carries a lovely scent. Plus the evaporators are usually fueled with wood and that adds its own wonderful later of smell!

  8. I love it when you write about maple syrup – so evocative. And sugar on snow is beyond my wildest dreams, as here in the UK, a little bottle of the syrup has to be eked out in miserly portions because of the cost. AND we can only buy the sweetest, lightest grade. I remember when we were in Canada, you could buy several, my own favourite being the dark, rich, less filtered kind with its heady unctous notes.

    • I like the darker grades of syrup, too, even though they’re considered inferior, I think. I’m in it for the flavor and the flavor is so much stronger with the dark syrup. I’m glad you haven’t got tired of these yearly maple posts–I get obsessed this time of year!

  9. You’ve proved that a story I read back in elementary school about maple snow was real. I always thought it was pure fiction. I grew up in Philly, where trees of any sort were viewed with suspicion as they attracted birds that dirtied freshly washed cars.

    • And you would no sooner eat the snow in Philly, right?! City life seemed to be a fiction to me–I read A Tree Grows In Brooklyn when I was in 7th grade and couldn’t fathom such a different world!

  10. Thanks for sharing that wonderful memory!! Maple syrup making I’m sure will never be one of my memories. I can almost imagine how it would taste!

    • You need to take a trip to the northeast–Vermont or Quebec or upstate NY– this time of year and go to a maple weekend. All the sugar shacks in this area were open a couple weekends ago, doing demonstrations and giving samples. It’s a great experience!

  11. As soon as I started reading your post I suddenly remembered for the first time in years reading ‘Little House in the Big Woods’ by Laura Ingalls Wilder and her account of collecting maple syrup and sugaring off. Thank-you!

    • Oh, I loved those books! In large part because Laura’s life was so like mine, I think. Her husband (Almanzo Wilder) grew up about 30 miles from here–the family’s farm is now a museum. Wonderful!

      • How interesting! I loved the books because they told of a life so different from mine – living in a town just south of London, England!

  12. Kerry, this brought back such sweet memories of a couple of years I spent visiting “cabane a sucre” (sugar shack) near Montreal – sugar pies and doughnuts sprinkled with maple sugar, maple syrup and maple candy. But it was also about connections to family and friends, generations together, sharing the joy that the world had turned and spring was here again in all its sweetness.

    • That sounds like such a great experience! And it really is about the connections. Next weekend, we’ll go to a pancake breakfast at my cousin’s sugar shack–it’s a fund raiser for local square dancers and I think this is the 48th year! We’ll meet family members there and get caught up, in the warm, sweet-smelling space with strong coffee and all the pancakes we can eat (drenched in newly-made syrup, of course!)

  13. I’m sure that the memory is as much about the sweetness of the candy as the sweetness of your mother making it with you… With proliferation of processed food, we are forgetting the second value of making our lives (verses purchasing life experiences).
    Oscar

  14. Wonderful post! While I was able to participate in making maple syrup when I lived in Vermont, I’ve never heard of sugar on snow.
    I’d be happy living in New England!

  15. What a lovely piece of writing, Kerry. It’s amazing how smells and tastes can carry us all the way back to another time, evoking wonderful memories. What an amazing childhood experience. Maple season!

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