When you draw from your mind a symbol of Canada that is endemic across the globe, the first image that comes to mind is that of the maple leaf. In the cool month of March, that honoured leaf has long since shivered to the ground and yet it is the bare maples that mark the year’s first harvest. For local farmer, Don Giffin, a family tradition is rehearsed every March as the sap starts to run from the silver maple trees of Sinclair Woods.
Don welcomed me to his farm and generously described to me the process that his maple operation begins every year and conducts for about the five weeks or so that the maple harvest runs. For twenty-five years, Don has been creating award-winning maple syrup from our regions maple trees. He began humbly tapping roadside maples. As his interest grew he began to tap more and more trees and eventually was rewarded the sole rights to tapping within Sinclair Woods.
But the history of maple syrup in our region is as old as the trees that produce the sweet nectar. Native Americans were the first to discover “sinzibukwud”, Algonquin for maple syrup, which literally means “drawn from wood”. Recognized for its energy and nutrition, Native Americans would use their tomahawks to chop an angled incision into the trees. Then they would insert reeds or concave pieces of bark to run the sap into birch buckets. As a form of reverse osmosis and to reduce boil time, the natives would simply leave the sap in the buckets overnight and freeze the water content, collecting the rich sugary substance from beneath.
With the arrival of the first European settlers and fur traders came the introduction of iron and copper kettles. The Native Americans taught French colonists the practice of tapping and collecting the maple sap and during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, syrup was a major source of pure sugar.
Along the picturesque trails within Sinclair Woods, the past greets the present as Don inserts plastic “health” taps into the trees. Called health taps because they allow the tree to heal in three months as opposed to two years, these taps are used only once and then discarded to prevent a bitter tasting sap known as “buddy syrup”.
With the early-spring’s endeavors underway, Don’s crew are busy collecting and producing this year’s crop at a hurried pace. The modern evaporator has replaced the iron cauldrons and plastic pails have taken the place of classic tin. But, what still remains is a farmer that simply values a small patch of ground.
Visit Griffin Maple Syrup Products at 18862 Communication Rd. S., Blenheim. Don and Jean run a working farm so contacting them beforehand is advised. Don and Jean have released a cookbook in conjunction with the Ontario Maple Syrup Producers Association. Contact 519-676-3448 for more information.