Making Maple Sugar with Catharine Parr Traill
March 25, 2022
Making Maple Sugar: From Catharine Parr Traill's Female Emigrant Guide
An Except from the Female Emigrant’s Guide (1855)
In the mid nineteenth century, most families relied on making their own sugar, which was an essential ingredient, not only for sweetening, but also preserving. Catharine Parr Traill provides a thorough description of how it was done:
With the assistance of the children and females of the house, a settler may, if he has a good sugar bush, make several hundred pounds of sugar in a season, besides molasses and vinegar. Many a stout boy of fourteen or fifteen, with the aid of the mother and young ones, has made sugar enough to supply the family, besides selling a large quantity.
The first thing is to look out for a good sugar bush, where he can be sure of a hundred or two hundred of good trees standing not very far from each other. In the centre of his bush he should fix upon a boiling place: a fallen pine, or any large tree should be chosen: if there be not one ready felled, he must cut one down, as he needs a good lasting back log against which to build his fire at the boiling time; but there are other requisites to be attended to: a certain number of troughs, hollowed out of small pine, black ash, basswood and sundry other kinds of wood; one or more troughs to each tree; if the trees be large, two and even three troughs are placed, and so many incisions made in the bark with the axe, into which spills of cedar are inserted; these are made with a hollow sort of chisel; but some do not make such pains, and only stick a flat slip of shingle, slanting from the gash in the bark, to direct the flow of sap to the trough. The modes of tapping are various: some use the augur and bore a hole, which hurts the tree the least; some chip out across the bark, and cut two sweeping lines down so as to give the sap two channels to flow in; others merely gash the bark with a slanting cut, and insert the spill.
There should be a large trough hewed out almost as big as an Indian canoe, or barrels, placed near the boiling place for a store trough; into this the sap is collected, as fast as the smaller ones fill, the boys and women empty their contents into pails, and the pails into the large receptacle. The boiling place is made by fixing two stout forked posts into the ground, over which a pole is laid, stout enough to support the kettles; ironwood is good for this purpose; on this the kettles are hung at a certain height above the fire. A hoop, with a piece of clean coarse serge or flannel sewed over it, serves as a strainer; the edge of the pots should be rubbed with clean lard to prevent the sap boiling over. It is a common plan, but I think by no means a nice one, to keep a bit of pork or fat bacon suspended by a string above the sap kettles: when the boiling sap reaches this it goes down: but I think my plan is better, and certainly more delicate. If possible have more than one kettle for boiling down; a constant change from the pots facilitates the work: as the first boiling decreases, and becomes sweeter, keeping adding from the others, and filling them up with cold sap. A ladleful of cold sap thrown in at the boiling point, will keep it down. Attention and care Is now all that is required. The one who attends to the boiling should never leave his business; others can gather the sap and collect wood for the fires. When there is a good run, the boiling down is often carried on far into the night. If heavy rains occur it is better to empty the sap-troughs, as the sap would be too much weakened for boiling.
After the sap has been boiled down to a thin molasses, it is then brought in to be sugared off. The syrup must be carefully strained through a woollen strainer; eggs are then beaten up, with the shells, and poured into the cold syrup, which is now ready for boiling into thick syrup, or for sugaring off.
Towards the end of the boiling, the greatest care and watchfulness is required. When the syrup boils in thick yellow foam, and the whole pot seems nothing but bubbles, the sugar is nearly come; it then drops ropy from the ladle, and experienced sugar makers can tell by blowing it off the edge of the ladle, if it is done; it then draws into long, bright threads that easily stiffen when cool. Others drop a little into a pail of cold water, when, if it hardens, they say it is ready to pour out into pails or pans, or any convenient vessel. Most persons grease the pans or moulds before they pour the syrup into them, that it may turn out easily.
In the course of two or three days the sugar will be formed into a solid cake, and may be turned out; but if you wish to have good fine grained sugar, after turning it out of the moulds, pierce the bottom of the cakes, and then set them across sticks, over a clean vessel; a sugar trough will do, and the wet molasses will drain out, which will improve the look of your sugar, render it easier to break up for use, and removes any coarse taste, so that you may put it as a sweetener into cakes, puddings, tea, or coffee and it will be as nice as the best muscovado. [imported sugar that is less refined and contains more molasses than modern brown sugar]
The larger coarse-grained maple sugar, which looks like sugar candy, is made by not over-boiling the syrup, pouring it into shallow pans, and letting it dry slowly in the sun or a warm room. This I like better than the cake sugar, but it is not so convenient to store. To those who have few utensils or places to put things in, as a sweetmeat for eating, the dark heavy-looking sugar is liked the best, but I prefer the sparkling good grained sugar, myself for all purposes.
The Indian sugar, which looks dry and yellow, and is not sold in cakes, but in birch boxes, or mowkowks, as they call them, I have been told, owes its peculiar taste to the birch bark vessels that the sap is gathered in, and its grain is to being kept constantly stirred while cooling.
I have been told that a small bit of lime put into the syrup whitens the sugar. Milk is used to clarify, when eggs are not to be had, but I only made use of eggs. Four eggs I found enough for one boiling of sugar.
Passage edited for clarity