Donna Simons remembers feeling slightly giddy the first time she tapped one of the maple trees on her Pound Ridge property. “I was pretty excited to see something flowing from the tree,” she recalls. Still, she couldn’t quite imagine what would follow. “I tasted it and it barely had any sweetness to it. It was very, very mild and I looked at this clear liquid and thought, ‘No way is this going to become real maple syrup.’”
Fast forward two years and Simons now knows that not only would her sap transform into real maple syrup, but that it would turn into highly sought-after syrup. For when celebrated chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten was presented with a blind taste test, he chose Simon’s syrup to be the one that he would serve at his new restaurant, The Inn at Pound Ridge, which opened last year. In fact, he chose it over several other highly touted, locally produced brands. “I didn’t know anything about it until a friend called and said ‘Congratulations, I read in Bedford Magazine that Jean-Georges is using your maple syrup,’” says Simons. “I said, ‘What are you talking about? I only have five maple trees. What am I going to do?’ I knew I had to find more trees.”
Simons put out the word, and soon she was fielding offers from other local folks to come and tap their maples. “Last year we did 50 taps; this year I plan to do double that,” she says.
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But while Simons has turned this into a commercial enterprise, Pound Ridge Organics, she encourages individuals to give syrup making a shot — at least once. “The more we begin to utilize what is right in front of us, right on our own properties, the better; it’s empowering,” she says. “And it’s fun! It’s a great project for children and families. It’s important for children to know the origins of their food.”
So, how to get started? Tapping is the first step. “It was much easier than I thought it was going to be,” says Simons. “Although drilling was a little difficult. Some electric drills are not powerful enough to get through the live, cold frozen wood.” Simons suggests tapping the south side of a tree, because it is always going to be warmer and the sap will flow more readily. After you drill a hole in the tree, you hammer in a tap. Simons buys her taps online and says there are a wide variety to choose from. Following this, Simons takes a two-foot long hose and attaches it to the spout of the tap. “There are many ways to do this — my version is very low tech and inexpensive. I borrow from friends who have five-gallon bottles of spring water. I thread the hose through that hole. It’s so hard to believe that in no time at all, the five gallon container can be filled up.”
If you plan to use just one or two taps, keep these measurements in mind: It usually takes 40 to 50 gallons of maple sap to produce one gallon of maple syrup.
The next step is boiling down the sap to transform it into maple sugar. First, you have to skim or strain it, “because there may be bugs or bark in there,” says Simons, adding that the sap needs to be hot when you do this. Then you begin cooking it. “The hardest part is at the end; it becomes really really delicate, and it is so easy to overcook,” she says. In fact, Simons says that the first time the chefs at The Inn at Pound Ridge were cooking down her syrup, they fell into this very trap. “I walked in and Blake [Farrar] had a really upset look on his face; he said, ‘I think I ruined your syrup. It smells kind of like caramel and it just doesn’t look right anymore.’ I looked at it and said, congratulations — you made maple sugar — this is awesome.’ So I took it home and used it in my coffee.”
Currently, Simons brings her sap to The Inn’s kitchen, and they do the “big evaporation, which makes it go from clear water to something that begins to resemble maple syrup. The last part I do in my kitchen, because it takes a watchful eye and a thermometer to make sure you are not overcooking it.”
But you don’t have to worry about learning all the details yourself; this year, Simons will be selling Do-it-Yourself Maple Syrup Kits.
This year, Simons will embark on a new project. Actor Richard Gere, who lives near Simons and is part-owner of the Bedford Post Inn, along with Russel Hernandez, has birch trees on his property. “He’s invited me to come and tap the trees,” she says. “We’ll collectively bring the sap to The Inn’s kitchen; they’ll cook it down most of the way, then I’ll bring it back to my facility to finish it, bottle it and label it. The Inn plans to give it as a gift to their clients.” Birch syrup is more savory and not nearly as sweet as its maple counterpart; it has a fruity molasses flavor. Other maple producers are also starting to consider tapping the potential of birch sap. While it is necessary to gather much more sap to create syrup, it has certain advantages: mainly, the sap starts flowing just as the maple season comes to an end (in April), so producers can extend their season. In addition, they can sell their product for a much higher rate.
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