With the tentative approach of spring, I'm not the only life form bursting to get outside. On the last Saturday in March, a group of us bloggers were once again invited by the fine folks at the Stratford Tourism Alliance to take a tour around their city and surrounding Perth County. This time, the focus was on the sweetest product of the season - maple syrup.
Throughout our four-stop visit, we were treated to samples of syrup and foods made with it, and learned a lot about how maple syrup gets to our tables. I certainly have a greater understanding of why pure maple syrup costs so much. Besides the harvesting period being quite short, the difference of just a few degrees in temperature can greatly impact the yield from the maple trees.
It turns out, the sap of the sugar maple tree and I have a lot in common, in that it shrinks away from temperatures below the optimal 5°C. When the air around the tree reaches this temperature, the sap "knows" that it's time for the tree to come out of hibernation, so it starts to make it's way up from the root system, through the trunk in order to provide the fuel necessary for the tree to produce leaves.
It's very important that the temperature not rise much above this, and also drop back down at night, because the fluctuation between the ideal daytime and nightime temps means the sap will rise and fall accordingly. What this does is enable the harvesting, via taps in the trunk, over a number of weeks. Once it gets warm enough, the sap makes it all the way to the branches and then it's past the harvesting time. The taps and 2-litre buckets are positioned to catch the flow of sap as it makes its way up the trunk, and back down. On a good day, each bucket will be full by the end of the day.
We started our day at Revel Caffè for coffee and maple schnecken. German for "snail", these coiled, nut-topped bundles of croissant dough were a perfect vehicle for the maple glaze. They were light as air and very lightly sweet and went great with the café's signature blend, Revel Revolution. The owners of the café have a direct relationship with the family who own and operate the Nicaraguan plantation where the coffee beans are farmed.
Caffeinated and ready, we made our way to McCully's Hill Farm for a syrup tasting and wagon ride tour. Here's where I learned not only how the sap is harvested, but also that the raw syrup was nothing like I expected. It's very pale and watery, with a mere whisper of sweetness. I was also surprised to discover that the three grades of syrup - light, medium and amber - are not the result of cooking times, but rather in which stage of the harvesting period the sap is collected. I think the light syrup was my favourite flavour, as it seemed to me to have the most complexity without a cloying sweetness, with the medium a close second, with more caramel notes. At the farm, we were also treated to a sampling of maple products they have for sale, like the mustards, and delicious pork sausages and ribs.
Next up, we joined Terry Hoover, and his wife, of Hoover's Maple Syrup at Chef Shawn Hartwell's sustainable seafood restaurant, Simple. Fish and Chips. Lunch was Fanny Bay mussels, sable fish, mahi mahi and citrus cured salmon. I have to say, even with the smoky sweetness of the bacon they were cooked with, I'm still not sold on mussels. There's just always something musty in their flavour. The firm-fleshed mahi mahi was very good with a light, vinegary flavour and the black sesame seeds asserting themselves on the palate.
It was a definite tossup for the favourite piece of fish, between the maple glazed sable fish (aka black cod) and the salmon. While the maple flavour was very subtle, the fish itself had an intriguing, almost nutty flavour, and the texture was tender - almost silky. The cured salmon had a similarly luxurious mouth feel and the blend of juices and zest of all the citrus fruits was a refreshing take on curing. Deeeeeelish.
To cap off the day, we were treated to three maple-highlighting dishes from Chef Wendy Seguin, at Let Them Eat Cake, and a lesson in how to make your own indoor hot smoker for under $10! Yes, I tried the maple roasted beet soup, and yes, I still hate beets. Next, we got a demo of the smoker build and got to sample the end result with a maple chip smoked trout with citrus butter on wild rice with maple coated walnuts. For such a short smoke time, I was surprised at the depth of the sweet smoky flavour in the perfectly cooked fish. I definitely want to try this at home. Ending the tasting with a swan-shaped maple roasted pear tart with maple cream was a delight for the eyes as well as the palate. The delicate maple flavour of the fluffy cream squooshing out of the flaky pastry mingled nicely with the still firm pears.
I can't suggest highly enough that you make a trip out to Stratford if you get the chance. It's a cute little town, just a short drive out of Toronto, with a lot going on in its culinary scene. The Straford Tourism Alliance has an enticing set of Tasting Tours that you can sign up for. Chef Seguin kindly provided the recipes for all of her dishes, plus smoker building instructions. So get to experimenting with maple!