Delicious, natural food is plentiful in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, if you are willing to work for it. From hunting to fishing to foraging, one could easily survive on what Mother Nature provides. It's no wonder that after our ancestors immigrated to the United States and found work (and lost work) up here in the copper mines and logging camps, that they decided to stay and make this beautiful place their home. Generations later some of us are still here, still enjoying this peaceful life, and eating the same treats our Great-Grandparents were feasting on.
Hunting, fishing and foraging is still a natural part of the lifestyle in Finland today. Throughout the year I will dedicate some blogs to this lifestyle that is very Finnish-American.
The very first harvest in Michigan each year is Pure Michigan Maple Syrup. Enjoy the video below as we try sugarmaking for the very first time.
Pure, simple, wild, natural.
Living close to nature allows you to forage, eat and produce what mother nature provides.
I didn’t like syrup as a kid. I put sugar on my pancakes until I was 25. It wasn’t until I tried real, pure maple syrup that I realized how delicious it was. Aunt Jemima can keep her high fructose corn syrup.
Living off the land, foraging what mother nature provides is a very Finnish trait. I’m sure if Finland had an abundance of maple trees, they would be tapping them. Pine and spruce trees make up almost 90% of Finland’s forests. Birch is the next most common tree and turning birch sap into syrup is gaining popularity there.
On the other hand, the sugar maple is Michigan's most common native tree species. Vermont is known as the sugar capital of the U.S. but Michigan has more sugar maples, and could easily top Vermont. Hint hint fellow Michiganders.
The very first sugar makers were Native Americans who were tapping trees as early as the 1500’s and taught the process of producing maple syrup to European settlers.
Travel through the Upper Peninsula in the spring and you will see bags and cans hanging off trees in the woods and in people’s yards. Collecting the sap that flows from maple trees starting in about mid-March, when the temperatures rise above freezing. The sap is crystal clear, almost like water and has barely any taste.
This winter was long and cold. Temps didn’t stay above freezing until the end of March. Our first taps went in on March 21st. To our dismay, each day our bags were less than a quarter full. It was exciting to find a bag half full! We may have started too early for this year’s season. We collected sap from 5 trees for a week, collecting roughly 29 gallons of sap.
That might sound like a lot however it takes 40 gallons of sap to produce 1 gallon of syrup. Our 29 gallons produced roughly about ¾ gallon of syrup!
After we collected the sap, the next step was to boil it down to syrup. Justin hauled an old woodstove out of our basement and cut a hole in the top to hold a stainless-steel food pan for boiling sap in. It wasn’t long before the sap was bubbling.
After the first pan of sap boiled down to about half, we added fresh sap to the pan, boiled that down until that was reduced to about half and kept adding more sap. Since we didn’t have a full day to dedicate to this process, we did this in batches, keeping the boiled down sap in a separate container. As the sap boiled down, the sticky sweet smell of the steam made you hungry for pancakes!
On the final day of boiling, during a little late-season blizzard, we poured all the batches of boiled down sap together and reduced it further until we were left with a little over a gallon. That was strained to remove any debris or bugs from collection or that landed in the pan in our open-air sugar shack, aka driveway.
We brought the syrupy substance into the house and finished boiling on the gas stove where it would be easier to control and test with the hydrometer. It didn’t take long and we had a golden colored maple syrup. The syrup was a lot lighter in color than I thought it would be and the flavor is a lot lighter as well. I was unsure of the taste at first, but after the syrup cooled I was relieved the flavor was better. After some research we found that the earlier in the season you collect the sap, the milder the flavor. Later season sap produces the richer, darker syrup with the distinct maple flavor.
I would say our first time syrup making was a success. It’s a rewarding feeling when you produce your own food; you know where it came from and how it was made, and I don’t feel guilty when I drench my pancakes in it. Next year more taps, more sap!
Stainless-steel food pan
5 Collection Bags and hangers
Hydrometer and test cup
Pint jars (sterilized)
Glass maple leaf bottles (found at a cute coffee shop in Florence, WI)
Kristin Ojaniemi is a Finnish-American filmmaker, video creator and proud Yooper full of sisu.