While we shake off the remnants of winter, the calendar technically reads spring, and if Mother Nature is on cue, it is the time in the year when the sap begins to flow. Often referred to as the first harvest of the season, the first trickle of sap comes in early- to mid-March, depending on the temperature. While it is not technically a crop in the traditional sense of the word, maple sap is produced by Mother Nature, and once harvested and processed becomes maple syrup— the sweet gold liquid is 100 percent pure, natural and sustainable. 

For the magic to happen, there are two significant numbers to bear in mind when talking maple syrup.  For guaranteed success, those numbers must read minus five degrees Celsius at night and plus five degrees Celsius during the day. Too cold, especially at night, and the sap will freeze solid and simply refuse to flow: too warm, especially during the day, and the sap will dry up and won’t run. The formula needs to be just right for the magic to work, but when it does, it is a truly extraordinary process. 

Maple in the County, an annual event celebrating everything maple is held every March. Now in its 16th year, the family-focused event sees the enthusiastic participation of 12 sugarbushes (sugar shacks and farms) throughout the County, along with many other establishments including wineries, restaurants and breweries. But it is the food and the ever-growing variety of maple-themed products that make Maple in the County famous for miles around. Sweet treats include traditional pancake breakfasts drizzled–or drenched–in maple syrup, maple pork or maple chicken sausages, maple kettle corn, maple butter, maple caramel apples, maple sugar, maple s’mores, and a perennial favourite, mouth-watering maple taffy on snow. 

While food is a big part of the weekend festivities, there are plenty of activities at various locations scattered throughout the area with wagon rides, lumberjack shows, horse and buggy rides, petting zoos, face painting, and barnyard animals including young lambs. If the weather is a little chilly, hot chocolate, mulled wine and hot apple cider are available and some locations will have campfires to keep fingers and toes warm. If a short hike is needed to burn off the extra calories consumed, several locations have self-guided sugarbush tours where you can get up close and personal with the tapped maple trees and the running sap. It is as close to nature as one can get. Many operations now use high-tech plastic tubing systems to collect the sap, but a few still use tin buckets so visitors can experience the old-fashioned way of collecting sap.

Once the sap (referred to as “maple water” or “maple sap”) is collected, the next step is to watch the sap turn into maple syrup. A number of the sugar shacks and sugar houses are expected to have evaporators up and running for the weekend allowing visitors to witness firsthand the process of the sap being boiled down as it slowly thickens into syrup —this process is usually referred to as “sugaring” or “sugaring off”.  You can even learn about reverse osmosis. The entire labour-intensive process is a fascinating one, marvelled by children and grown-ups alike. 

Canada is the largest producer of maple syrup in the world: 71 percent of global production happens right here in Canada – 91 percent of which is produced in Quebec. Ontario is the second largest producer.

According to the Ontario Maple Syrup Producers Association, “Ontario maple syrup producers produced approximately four million litres of maple syrup, valued at over $53 million in 2011, making it an important part of our rural and provincial economy.” It takes about 40 litres of sap to make one litre of maple syrup. Think about that for a moment. Forty litres equates to a lot of drips which have to be tapped, collected, boiled, processed and bottled. Next time you think a bottle of pure Canadian maple syrup is pricey, think about this unique quality product and the steps it takes to get the amber liquid into the bottle. 

While it should be remembered maple syrup has a very high sugar content, it is surprisingly nutritious.  High in manganese and riboflavin, pure maple syrup also contains zinc, B-vitamins and magnesium.  Maple syrup is not only fat-free, but it contains 15 times more calcium than honey, and has more calcium (by volume) than milk. It also contains more potassium (by weight) than bananas, but with all sweet treats, it should be consumed in moderation (except, of course, on Maple in the County weekend).

What better way to welcome the arrival of spring and celebrate the first harvest of the season as Maple in the County turns sweet sixteen. Working within an approximate six-week window, sap season is short so be sure to get outside to enjoy this very early spring crop—it’s a tradition and one looked forward to each year. And don’t forget to pick up some genuine pure Ontario maple syrup—no imitations allowed.