In Douglas Whynott's 'The Sugar Season,' maple syrup is a way of life

More than food, maple syrup is a way of life

Book review: ‘The Sugar Season,’ by Douglas Whynott


The Sugar Season


Douglas Whynott

Boiling sap down into syrup is one of the oldest agricultural industries on the continent. Using one tumultuous season as a linchpin, Douglas Whynott deftly weaves together stories about the family-dominated businesses, the great syrup heist of 2012 and how to appreciate the subtle flavourings and taste of fine syrup. He spends days in sugarhouses, watching steam rise above the trees, talking to old-timers, amateurs and novices about their harvests. He describes how they guard the trees during the off-season and spend weeks tramping through snow tapping each tree, checking the tubing that makes sure all the sap will be captured. It’s a way of life that is totally dependent on weather. And, as Whynott explains, the increasingly erratic climatic patterns are playing havoc, as sap runs ebb and flow.

The heart of the book is the Bascom family and its New Hampshire sugaring empire, everything from equipment sales to selling maple sugar. Like most operations now, Bascom’s uses the reverse osmosis cooking methods, though there are still those “old-fashioned woodsy folks” who prefer traditional wood-fired long boils in sugarhouses buried deep in the hills. Since Quebec produces 80 per cent of the world crop, this book meanders across the border, too, and down the Route des Sucriers, where the provincial maple syrup federation tests and evaluates every barrel of product. Bascom’s is such a large buyer of syrup that it inadvertently purchased some of the thousands of barrels stolen from the federation’s global strategic reserve. (The firm was cleared of any wrongdoing.)

Though the industry is worth hundreds of millions of dollars annually, in the end, it’s all about the trees, and those who love tending them. When Bascom’s threw a how-to-sugar seminar, it expected 250 to attend. Four hundred showed up. Poured on pancakes or eaten off fresh snow, maple syrup is more than food; it’s a way of life.


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