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Posts Tagged ‘Canada’

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Burying my face in lilacs dripping with raindrops, getting my nose all wet and not even caring, was and is a favorite Springly pastime. Lilacs in bloom also meant school was almost over for the year. When I smell them today, decades later, they still smell like almost-summer: delicious anticipation.

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Lilacs are so insistently fragrant that I used to pick a bunch and put them in a vase on the front porch so I could enjoy them without getting overpowered.

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I once propped My Fair Lady with a teenage actor who carried silk lilacs and did not know their name. It always spooks me a little when young people don’t know the names of common flowers, but getting a chance to tell them cheers me up.

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Florence Nightingale wasn’t just a famous nurse—she was also a really talented statistician. She figured out a wild—but accurate—phenology fact: After a very specific amount of days after the last frost, lilacs bloom. I can’t find the amount of days, and it’s bugging me. But it’s been proven.

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I love seeing lilacs when travelling. Been lucky a couple of times to see them twice in a year—at home and then, in chillier climes, again abroad. Canada has a spectacular lilac arboretum which was in bloom when we visited one late spring. Deep purple, lavender, white, and even the less common pink hedges were lush and lovely for acres. In Scotland winding village roads are dotted here and there with tall hedges. They look exactly right by century-old cottages.

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One of my favorite writers, Jungian analyst Clarissa Pinkola Estes, tells of a great story of hope that she learned when digging up a leggy and spent lilac hedge. She said despite the fact that it was what she called ‘boots up,’ surrounding it were smaller hedges. They all led to the original plant; it was its parent. The children were all in full and healthy bloom.

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A neighbor long ago had a house decked out with lilacs—knickknacks, toiletries, even the upholstery on her couch. It’s fascinating how people can take to a flower. Was it all about the color or fragrance? Or did it remind her of someone or something, and she needed to surround herself with a tangible version of the memory?

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I used to frequent an ancient red clapboard building in a nearby farm town. There I bought jars of wonderful blackberry honey from a similarly ancient beekeeper. In the back, near the hives, were lilac bushes that towered over me. They had the biggest blossoms, the sweetest smell, and were the plummiest purple I’d ever seen. I asked the beekeeper about them and he said they had been cut from prize plants grown long ago and far away. The honey shop is gone, and likely the beekeeper as well. But every May I go back, remember the taste of his honey, and smell the lilacs.

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Last week I learned lilacs are edible and went a little lightheaded at the thought. First I made an olive oil-almond cake, and then I collected some lilacs. I found a lone lavender bush near an old gazebo at the lake; another old bush in a Methodist beach community near several century-old religious buildings; and visited the plummy purple bushes behind my honey store. Why do lilac bushes so often sit beside old buildings? It’s probably as simple as this: People long ago loved them as much as we do now. Tastes don’t really change.

I went home and made lilac syrup, stirring one cup of sugar into one cup of hot water until the sugar dissolved, then steeped the rinsed blossoms in it until the syrup cooled. The next day I poured some over a slice of my cake.

It’s overwhelming, isn’t it, that we can take in some kinds of beauty through sight and smell, while others we can truly…consume? Beauty doesn’t have to be separate from us, admired and then left behind. As long as we can make lilac syrup, we can actually, deliciously, be part lilac.

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In late winter into early spring, the warmer days and cold nights cue maple trees to get their sap moving up into the branches for bud production. It’s also the brief window of time in which maple syrup producers work night and day to get sap extracted from trees, boiled down into syrup, and bottled. They’re scrambling this year, because the extended cold weather here on the east coast of the USA has pushed off the season. Once spring weather hits, it’s over for the year.

Yesterday I went with my sister and brother-in-law to the western end of New Jersey where maple syrup collecting is a hobby; we don’t have scads of sugar maples (the variety that produces the sweetest sap) the way our northern states and Canada do. Shame, because I could totally see myself doing this for a profession, despite the fact that I was crap at science.

In the meantime, groovy class. Bundle up.

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Allison the instructor showed us three pots of sap in various stages of reduction. You want to get the water out, to get down to the essence of this stuff. This is the sap after just a bit of boiling; it’s faintly tinged with brown.

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Here’s another pot of sap after longer boiling.

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This one’s almost ready to rock.

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Next we headed out to the sugar bush, the name for the cluster of tappable trees. Although, a woodpecker got to this tree first.

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A 100-year-old sugar maple, with ancient tapping scars.

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Another old tree. Sap running down its bark many years ago stained it black.

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Sap bucket.

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The sap is clear, icy cold, and very faintly sweet. We got a taste of it coming right out of the tree. Bloody awesome.

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A bucket lid keeps out random things that float in the air. Wild coincidence that Canadians made these, huh?

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An old-fashioned hand drill. Far cooler, although much less efficient, than a power drill.

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It has a wooden handle and knob. How cool is this thing?

The syrup in the jar at the top is the product of trees tapped right on the property; it’s single-origin (from one region) syrup. It was offered for comparison along with a commercially-sold brand of pure maple syrup and a popular brand name featuring brown-tinted corn syrup and a woman in a babushka. I thought the syrup made on the property was the best. But admittedly I gave the babushka the snub.

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Oh, and then since we were only 20 minutes outside of Princeton, we hit the bent spoon, which, as I posted to my friends, kicks every ice cream ass there is. The proprietors do their own tapping of local resources whenever possible, supporting local farmers and growers. This is chocolate Port and coconut ice cream. A knockout.

 

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Baby maple cream pie. Sunshine in a brioche tin.

Maple doesn’t get much press. But the real thing deserves it, holding its own against any other flavor, and it’s just as addictive. Mind you, if you’ve been searching the Internet for a decent addiction and you landed here, first, welcome aboard; and second, please note that real maple syrup is not the stuff you find in cabin-shaped or Butterfly McQueen-shaped bottles. Their contents are pretty much tinted corn syrup. The real thing is simply boiled-down sap, the purest essence of a tree.

And not to put too fine a point on it, but Grade B is the only maple syrup worth your time. Grade A doesn’t taste like much of anything, and I’ve heard New Englanders concur: ‘The closer to tar, the better.’ I’m happy to stand by their statement.

I think I was a Druid in another life. It would explain my devotion to this stuff. I’ve had pure organic syrup from Vermont and from Canada, and both are outstanding. Canadians are awfully proud of their proficiency with a maple tree. I remember holding up a bottle of syrup to a shopkeeper in Quebec City and asking, ‘C’est local?’ (‘Is it local?’) and she was completely taken aback. ‘Mais oui!’ (‘As IF we’d eat anyone else’s syrup, eh!’)

Late winter is sugaring-off season in the colder regions of the U.S. That’s when the sap of the maple tree starts to run in order to feed the soon-to-arrive leaves, and when sugaring-offers tap the trees with small spouts, buckets beneath.

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Antique wooden spout, northwest New Jersey.

When the buckets are filled with sap, they’re emptied into huge vats where they’re boiled down to syrup. Grade A is produced earlier in the season, B later. B is typically used in cooking because of its pronounced flavor, but you like pronounced flavor, so give it a whirl on your waffles and tell me what you think.

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Remembered to dock the crusts before putting them in the oven so they don’t bloat up like balloons in the Macy’s parade.

I have never tasted maple cream, the stuff northerners spread on their pancakes, but just typing that sentence is making me kind of insane to do it as soon as possible.

Another favorite of mine is maple sugar candy. It’s usually sold in little boxes and shaped like teeny maple leaves. They dissolve happily in your mouth and you don’t want to talk to anyone while they’re in there, making them inherently an anti-social candy. You can always make new friends. Find ones that like maple sugar candy and then you’ll be golden.

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About to meet its fate.

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Tomorrow’s breakfast: chunky applesauce with Grade B stirred in. One of my readers, Angie, gave me this idea. I always knew I liked her. That white blop on the bottom left is vanilla organic yogurt, but I wouldn’t argue with whipped cream or creme fraiche, either.

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Maple shortbread. Quite the hit with the cast, crew and staff of the Moliere farce I’m working on now. I’ll have to make more in order to stay in their debt.

I wanted to try making Laura Ingalls-style maple taffy this year by pouring hot syrup onto fresh snow, but the latter melted recently. If we get another storm, I’m making it. In the meantime, I have lots to eat.

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Grade B, baby.

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