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.