In Nova Scotia, maple syrup is made from the sap of native sugar maple trees (Acer saccharum), or snawey in the Mi’kmaq language, that have been a part of the Nova Scotia old growth Acadian forest for 5000-6000 years. While maple syrup is produced in other areas of Canada and the United States, according to a study conducted at Dalhousie University, “Nova Scotia has a unique product compared to other provinces and the States.” This is due to the over 24 phenolic compounds that can give the syrup its complex flavor. Nova Scotia maple syrup contains at least 13 phenolic compounds, with Coniferyl alcohol, Sinapyl aldehyde and Vanillic acid specifically overall found in greater concentration than in samples from other areas of southeastern Canada and the northeastern United States.
The maple or sugar season begins in Nova Scotia around mid-February and continues until no longer than late April with the tapping of the trees. Most maple production now occurs in the counties of Cumberland and Colchester. A new hole is drilled into the tree and a spout (properly known as a “spile”) is tapped into place. The tap either has a bucket hanging from it or, more commonly, is connected to a sap collection pipeline. The tree’s sap “runs” as it thaws out and will freeze up again when temperatures drop below 0°C. This period of freezing and thawing lasts for only 4-6 weeks, after which the trees ready themselves for springtime flowering and leafing out. Sap is collected and then boiled down until a minimum 66% brix sugar syrup has been created. Nothing whatsoever is added to make pure maple syrup.
Color ranges from pale yellow to very dark, almost black, brown, depending on when in the season it was produced and other environmental conditions. In general, the lightest colored and most delicately flavored syrup is made at the beginning of the maple production season and the darkest, strongest flavored syrup is made at the end. The exact taste of maple syrup varies quite significantly within the 4-6 week season, as well as from one year to the next. Climatic conditions combined with soil moisture availability, tree condition and other factors that have yet to be discovered, all contribute to how the trees express the terroir of their region.
No one knows exactly when the native peoples of North America, including the Mi’kmaq of the region, began collecting and processing maple sap, but they had probably been doing so for a long time before first European contact late in the 16th century. They also used the trees’ bark for medicinal purposes. It is safe to say that making maple sugar (siwkewiku) from maple sap has been going on for thousands of years. The First Nation story Sismoqnapui’skwe’j (Sweet Water Maiden) and First Nation people’s participation in the Kejimkujik Maple Syrup Festival shows that native people’s involvement in maple syrup production is long established and still alive and well. While the equipment used for the production of maple syrup has changed significantly since prehistoric times to present, the overall process has not. It takes 40 units of sap to produce one unit of maple syrup. Nova Scotia produces less than ½ of 1% of the world supply of maple syrup. The 2012 yield was 113,652 liters of maple syrup. This does not include the number of individuals who tap personal trees to produce syrup for their own consumption.
Nova Scotia is the most easterly maple-producing region, and the yield of syrup produced per tap is been significantly below the yield experienced in other maple syrup producing regions. Nova Scotian sugar maples are much slower growing, taking up to 80 years to reach a minimum size for tapping, compared to 40 years for trees in other areas. Rises in temperatures due to climate change may be directly linked to a recent slow in syrup production in the area. If climate change cannot be mitigated, this food tradition may be lost from Nova Scotia in the future.