Count maple season as one more thing coronavirus is trying hard to ruin – for us humans, anyway. The virus may have pulled the plug on Maine Maple Sunday, but the rest of nature doesn’t care. The sap will keep flowing, the boilers at sugar houses will keep boiling, and this year’s syrup will make it into bottles and jugs that might eventually end up on your breakfast table.

Maine producers hope the public will continue to support them by, say, tossing a quart of syrup into that shopping cart instead of that hundredth roll of toilet paper. Or by ordering a pint or two online.

So, with no pancakes to eat or farm animals to pet today, let’s learn more about maple syrup and why Maine syrup may or may not be the best in North America – tongue in cheek, of course, since all syrup is pretty much the same, right? Well, maybe. Maybe not.

Imagine a lip-smacking smackdown among Maine, Vermont and New York (the largest producers of maple syrup in the United States) and Quebec, which produces nearly three-quarters of the world’s maple syrup. Here we go:

The way it should be

All maple syrup tastes the same, right? After all, it’s basically sugar in liquid form, albeit a gloriously tasty, amber-colored liquid that makes your brain cells jump for joy.

Not exactly.

People like Kathryn Hopkins, who judge maple syrup contests, say they can detect subtle differences between maple syrup-producing regions in a blind tasting. Maple syrup, like wine, Hopkins says, has a certain terroir.

“Sometimes it’s sweeter, sometimes it’s a little more minerally, but it’s always good,” she said.

The differences in taste in a maple syrup competition can be a little like watching the Olympics – all of the athletes are world class, and winners win by razor-thin margins. There’s scant difference between a blue ribbon and a red ribbon.

“If you see someone who’s got all red ribbons hanging up, that’s outstanding syrup,” said Scott Dunn of Dunn Family Maple in Buxton and president of the Maine Maple Producers Association. “It just means that someone else had something a little different. You’re talking tenths of points.”

Dunn says slight differences come from both the trees and the soil. In southern Maine, we have red maples, sugar maples and silver maples, which can lead to flavor variations and to syrup that’s a little more complex. In Vermont, it’s predominantly sugar maples, so their syrups are more consistent, he said.

Is it just me, or does that sound like he’s saying Maine syrup is better than Vermont’s?

Maybe none of this matters because, Hopkins said, if you grew up in a maple-producing state, that’s the syrup you’re used to and the one you will like the most.

Or not. Hopkins still recalls the best syrup she ever tasted. It was in a blind tasting she did about five years ago, but she can’t remember where or when the tasting was – or where the “superlative” syrup was from. Sounds suspicious. What made this syrup so great, exactly?

“It just had a depth of flavor that made you think of the woods,” Hopkins recalled. “It was smooth. It had a maple flavor, but not an overpowering, in-your-face maple flavor. It was just so well-balanced between the sweetness and the flavor. It was just the way it should be.”

Mike Meagher loads more wood into the firebox of an evaporator last year at Maine-iac Maple Farm in Richmond. We bet he’d say Maine maple is best. Kennebec Journal/Joe Phelan

Size matters

Here Vermont is king. The state was responsible for about half of the 4.2 million gallons of maple syrup produced in the United States in 2019, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. New York state came in second, with 820,000 gallons, and Maine third with 580,000 gallons.

Quebec blows them all out of the water. The Canadian province harvested 12 million gallons of maple syrup in 2019 – up 35 percent from the previous year, according to government agency Statistics Canada. Quebec accounted for 91 percent of all Canadian maple syrup production in 2019.

Do we have a prayer of catching up to Vermont? It’s possible, but would take a lot of work. Somerset County is already the largest maple syrup-producing county in the country; the size of the maple operations there are “extreme,” Hopkins says.

“We have plenty of trees,” she said. “The trees are not the issue. A lot of them are away from population areas. You need people to do the work. I don’t know that we’ll ever challenge Vermont.”

Dunn noted that a lot of Maine’s timber producers are diversifying their forest lands from paper and putting them into maple production, seeing it as a better long-term source of revenue. Though it can take up to 40 years for trees to reach harvest, once they do, they can be be tapped every spring.

Dirigo

When people hear the words “maple syrup,” Vermont is still the first place that comes to mind. But there’s one area where Maine has kicked Vermont’s sugary you-know-what: Maine Maple Sunday.

Maine has celebrated the day for more than three decades. Despite hitting the pause button this year for a sober and serious reason, it’s been marketed so well by Maine producers that the public views it as a “must-attend” event. Other states have jumped on our bandwagon.

“Everybody realized what a great thing that was and copied us,” Hopkins said.

While Vermont has done a great job with its brand in general, Dunn added, “they haven’t necessarily found a way to get direct to consumers the way that we have. Their maple weekend is catching on, but their ratio of sugar houses to population is a lot more than it is in Maine. In Maine, they’re kind of a novelty, whereas in Vermont everyone knows a sugar maker, and there’s a sugar house on every other corner.”

Vermont has also decided to postpone its maple weekend because of coronavirus concerns, and is hoping to reschedule the event for fall, which is when maple producers typically show up at county fairs to sell their products.

Health food?

A few years ago, a researcher published a paper showing that maple syrup wasn’t just sugar – it contains lots of antioxidants, minerals, vitamins and other good stuff. Initially, people went nuts, using the research as an excuse to drown their pancakes in rivers of syrup.

Things have settled down, but it’s interesting to see how each state still uses this information as a marketing tool. Maine is, as you might expect, reserved about the whole thing, posting just a couple of news articles on its website with headlines such as “Can maple syrup reduce inflammation?”

Quebec is the strict nanny, posting a warning on a maple producers’ website from the World Health Organization about eating too much sugar first, then going on to call maple syrup “a partner in healthy eating.” A graphic breaks down the components of syrup – amino acids, vitamins, plant hormones, carbohydrates and so on. (Do we really need to be told that there are carbs in maple syrup?) And finally, Quebec plays the athlete card, noting that a soon-to-be-published study shows how athletes use maple syrup as an energy source during training. (Insert visual image of Tom Brady chugging a pint of syrup before a football game.)

Vermont, however. Oh, Vermont. You little huckster, you. Vermont compares syrup to broccoli and bananas. Broccoli and bananas, you see, also contain antioxidants. Pass the syrup.

Trailing

One area where Maine needs to step up its game is its variety of maple products. Where, for instance, are our maple cremees? The maple-flavored soft-serve ice cream, a Vermont classic, is hard to find here, although last year a local woman opened a food truck selling the treat.

Where are our maple flakes, a product popular in both Vermont and Quebec? These dehydrated flakes of maple syrup add not only sweetness but crunch to salads, cereal, oatmeal and desserts.

Vermont has gone crazy for infused syrups, flavored with spices, coffee, teas and even whiskies. Maine has merely dabbled in these upscale specialty products. More of such products are being made in southern Maine, Hopkins said, which also has a larger market for them.

“They have a lot more syrup in Vermont, so they’ve got to do something with it,” she said. “There are only so many pancakes somebody can eat.”

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Maple-Mocha Pudding

Recipe supplied by food editor Peggy Grodinsky. I no longer remember where this recipe came from. The note I wrote – some time ago judging by my neater, younger-self handwriting – says “just a pudding, but it has a nice flavor.” My feelings have changed over the years: Now, I have a deeper appreciation of “just a pudding” for reasons of nostalgia, comfort and simplicity. I use dark maple syrup when I bake for its more robust flavor.

 6 servings

3 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon instant coffee
1 teaspoon cocoa
Dash salt
3 egg yolks
3 cups whole milk
1/2 cup maple syrup
1 tablespoon butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Sea salt, optional

Whisk together the cornstarch, coffee, cocoa and salt in a medium-sized saucepan off the heat.

Separately, whisk together the egg yolks, milk and syrup. Stir the liquid ingredients into the cornstarch mixture over medium heat and gradually bring to a boil, stirring steadily with a wooden spoon. Boil for 1 minute.

Remove from the heat. Pour through a fine-mesh strainer to remove any stray cooked bits of egg yolks, then stir in the butter and the vanilla. Divvy up among 6 small bowls and chill for at least 4 hours.  Sprinkle with sea salt before serving, if you are feeling fancy.

Lemon-Basil Salad Dressing

Recipe from Ken Haedrich’s “Maple Syrup Cookbook.” The dressing is very versatile, Haedrich writes, excellent on green salads as well as green bean salads.

Yields 1 cup

1/3 cup vegetable oil or mix of vegetable and olive oils
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup pure maple syrup
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh minced basil
1/8 teaspoon lemon zest
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Whisk together all the ingredients in a small bowl (or simply shake in a jar). Taste and adjust the flavor with a little more maple syrup or vinegar if need be. Store in the refrigerator.

Variation: To make a creamy version, prepare as above, then whisk in 1/2 to 3/4 cup sour cream.


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