Manitoba maple syrup … on tap!

I love maple syrup.  I mean, real maple syrup.  I remember my grade 3 teacher cooking maple syrup on the staff room stove and then drizzling it onto fresh snow for us to eat.  We plunged our faces into the snow and delighted in the deliciously sweet, hardened taffy.  Years later, a friend and I tried to replicate the experience by pouring corn syrup on the snow, but it just wasn’t the same. I wished sugar maples grew in Manitoba.

When I learned that our very own Manitoba maple (Acer negundo), also known as boxelder, could be tapped for maple syrup, I was pumped! Manitoba maples are commonly planted as shelter belt trees, and my yard was full of them!

maple tapping using bird bone (640x480)Rather than buying special taps for gathering the sap, I decided to experiment with taps made from natural materials found around me.  Over the years, I have used the hollow stems of cane grass (Phragmites communtatis), shards of deer leg bones, and various bird bones, which are naturally hollow (photo). My next experiment will be high bush cranberry stems, which have a pithy center that can be punched out to make a hollow tube.

Maple syrup runs best when overnight temperatures drop below freezing and daytime temperatures reach about 10 degrees Celsius.  You can score the trees with a knife or drill holes with a hand or cordless drill.  Place your taps on the south sides of the trees and make sure they fit snugly in the holes or you will find the sap running down the tree instead of your tap.  Honey pails attached to the trees with bands of bicycle inner tube make for easy removal and replacement when the pails need to be emptied. Just make sure that the band is tight so it doesn’t stretch too much as the pail gets heavy with sap.

Gather the sap before the leaves and flowers appear for the best run and flavour.  Once the buds break open, the sap tends to taste more woody.

To boil the sap, strain it through a clean cloth to remove flies and bits of bark (a piece cut from pantyhose works well), pour it into flat pans or any kind of pot and boil it down.  It takes 40 litres of sap to make 1 litre of syrup, so be sure to do this outside!  (Some sugar evaporates with the water and it will coat everything in your house!)  I use an old cookstove in my summer house, where I can open large windows for good air flow.

boiling maple sap (640x480)Boiling maple sap can be very time-consuming, but is well worth it!  You can speed the process up by removing the ice from partially frozen sap. The ice contains little to no sugar, leaving the liquid with a higher sugar concentration. Don’t throw the ice out!  Melt it and drink it.  If you don’t have time to process the sap you’ve collected, freeze it and use it later to make tea.  Manitoba maple syrup contains the equivalent of about 1.5 teaspoons of sugar per cup, which makes the perfect, naturally sweetened cup of tea!

You don’t need a lot of taps to get a decent amount of syrup.  I have tapped as few as 5 trees and gathered enough sap to make a litre or two of syrup.  There is something incredibly grounding about drinking sap straight from a tree, so even if you can only tap a few trees, go for it and enjoy the sap and all of its nutrients, including calcium and potassium, straight up!

Oak for Food and Medicine

It was that distinctive sound of something small and dense falling through the tree canopy and landing on the forest floor that caused me to hop on my bike and head to town.  After riding or walking through the local park and some friends’ yards, checking the ground around dozens of oak trees, I was surprised to find that only 1 tree had what I was looking for – large, healthy acorns!  But one was all I needed.  One productive tree can produce way more acorns than I need.  I returned the next day with a bucket in hand and gathered 4 gallons of acorns in a little over an hour.

Why all the excitement over acorns?

We all know that acorns are an important food source for animals (squirrels, deer, bear, and weevils) as they prepare for the cold winter months, but few people realize that acorns are a good source of both fat and protein that are worthy of human consumption.  Acorns can be ground into a delicious, healthful flour that can be added to almost anything.  They also contain tannic acid, an astringent that works wonders on drying and closing wounds that don’t seem to want to heal on their own.

Acorns are easily collected from the ground as they fall off the trees in the fall (September – October).   The sooner they are collected, the less damage will have been done to them by acorn worms (weevil larvae).  A small, round hole in the shell means that the larva(e) have eaten their fill and made their exit.  I leave these ones on the ground. I also leave any nuts that look anything other than “perfect”, since those with scarring on them usually still have worms inside.

There are many ways to shell acorns but I have so far found the easiest being to roast them in an oven or next to a fire until the shells crack easily when pressed with a hard object.  (Roasting also takes care of any worms that might be in them.)  I like to put the acorns on a flat surface, place a wooden spoon on top (concave side down) and then whack or press the spoon with my hand.  The spoon prevents pieces from flying all over the place.  Once shelled, they can be ground into flour.  I put them through a food processor and then transfer them to a blender. (I do not recommend putting dried acorns in either appliance, as they make a dreadful racket and are very hard on the machines.)   Even if the flour is not powder fine, it will work well in many recipes.  I then spread the flour on a cookie sheet and dry it in the oven at a low temperature (or in a dehydrator).  If it roasts a bit, that’s okay, too.

I add acorn flour to muffins and pancakes (acorn-blueberry are my favourite), usually in addition to the amount of flour already specified.  If a recipe calls for nuts, add acorn flour instead.  Muffins in which I used a large proportion of acorn flour to grain flour turned out quite tasty, but very dense (and ugly enough to cause others to politely decline the offer).

Instructions for preparing acorn flour often include a step that involves removing the astringent tannic acid from the nuts, either by repeated boilings or cold-water leaching.  It is important to know that there are two types of oak trees – red oaks and white oaks. Red oaks contain a very high concentration of tannic acid, which is very astringent and unpleasant to eat.  With red oaks, the leaching process is very important. However, the bur oak (the only oak that grows in Manitoba) is a type of white oak.  White oaks have a much lower concentration of tannic acid and I have found through experience that acorns gleaned from the bur oak do not require this extra process.

Tannic acid collected by boiling oak bark, acorn shells or the acorns, themselves, works wonders for drying out and closing open wounds, poison ivy sores and other skin eruptions.  With repeated applications of tannic acid tea, results can be seen in very little time.  I used a strong tannic acid tea to help close a deep gash I had in my leg.  In less than an hour, the effects were indisputable.  I also use it to soothe sore feet after walking barefoot through places where I should have known better.

I always save at least a gallon of acorn shells to use for this purpose.  They can also be used to make a tea that will sustain kombucha or manchurian “mushrooms”.  With the addition of wild ginger root and Labrador tea, you can make your very own ginger-ale-flavoured drink!

Tannic acid is so called because of its history as a hide tanning agent.  For this purpose, slabs of oak bark were soaked in water.  Animal hides were added to the brew and allowed to soak for several months.

July 7 Wild Edible Adventure

It’s been over 10 years since I convinced a friend of mine to try milkweed fritters with me after reading about them in one of Euell Gibbons’s books.  We enjoyed them so much, we made an annual event out of it. Over the next few years, a meal consisting entirely of deep-fried foods evolved into a full-course potluck where every dish contained wild edibles. As word got out and more people expressed an interest in sharing this experience, Laura’s “You can eat that?!” Wild Edible Adventures came to life. The summer workshop continues to be scheduled around the milkweed flowering season.

A wide variety of wild edibles is available at this time of year. The July 7th “shopping list” contained 14 above-ground plant parts that would lead participants into several different habitats, including riverbottom forest, upland prairie, marsh, woodland edge,  domestic gardens and yard sites.  Our list included:

wild grape leaves, purple prairie clover, wild mint, bugleweed, giant hyssop, wild bergamot, wild caraway seeds, lamb’s-quarters, pigweed, portulaca (a.k.a. purslane), wood-sorrel, chickweed and, of course, milkweed flowers and flower buds.

While exploring the marsh, we also discovered the wonderfully acidic flavour of the swamp smartweed, and gathered that, too.  We also paused to enjoy a patch of ripe saskatoons, one of the few patches that actually produced berries this year.  All of these distractions cost us some time, but in the end, this fun and diverse group of 12 produced the most delicious Wild Edible Adventure meal that I can remember.

In addition to what we gathered, I provided some sassafras roots to make an experimental sassafras cake.  (I mean,what could be better than a cake that tastes like root beer?)  I also had some cattail flower tops to add to the main dish.

This is what our menu looked like:

 

Menu

Wild salad (Portulaca, Lamb’s-quarters, Smartweed and Wood-sorrel) with Chickweed Dressing

Wild Grape leaf soup

Wild green lentils with Cattail tops

Milkweed fritters

Blanched Milkweed flower buds

Wild pizza pita pockets

Dandelion Wild Mint cake

Sassafras cake

Bugleweed and Hyssop teas

 

As usual, not everything turned out according to plan, which was great.  Several recipe modifications have come from the creativity and accidents that occur in the kitchen during these workshops.  (Like the time wild mint accidentally got mixed in with the stinging nettle and ended up being a great addition to the stinging nettle soup!)

The experimental sassafras cake tasted wonderful, but  (mental note) the powdered roots should be put through a fine sieve first.

 

May 12 Wild Edible Adventure

This was the most amazing spring Wild Edible Adventure to date!  Abnormal weather conditions resulted in a greater diversity of available wild edibles than usual.  Roots and tubers are usually the focus at this time of year, but wild greens were sprouting up all over the place and, true to my nature, I felt compelled to add as many as possible to the dinner menu. I knew it was a tall order, but I also had a good feeling about the group coming out  – and confidence that they would work as a team to pull it off.

They did.

After introductions over acorn squash muffins and lavender-spiked dandelion coffee, the group was briefed on plant identification and harvesting tips.  By 11:00, everyone was ready to head out and put their knowledge to action.

We gathered 14 edible plant parts from 12 different species, including:
cattail roots, cattail shoots, burdock roots, sweet cicely roots, caraway roots, dandelion roots, dandelion flowers, stinging nettle, goosefoot, lamb’s-quarters, milkweed shoots, caragana flowers, basswood leaves and stinkweed shoots.

When we got back to base camp, this eager and enthusiastic team didn’t miss a beat putting the menu items together.  I offered additional wild greens and mushrooms that I had gathered earlier.  The result was a phenomenal wild dinner that included 19 different wild edibles! Check out our menu!

MENU

Basswood, lamb’s-quarters and caragana salad (stinkweed optional)

Cattail shoots

Stinging nettle, goosefoot and fiddlehead soup

Curried chickpeas with cattail tops and lamb’s-quarters

Burdock root in vinegar sauce

Milkweed shoots (cooked)

Caraway roots (cooked)

Dandelion fritters with sweet cicely honey

Cattail pancakes with Manitoba maple syrup

Dandelion wild spearmint cake

Sweet cicely tea

 

If you would like to sign up for the next “You can eat that?!” Wild Edible Adventure, click here!

Photos taken by Cindy Balkwill Photography.

 

Burdock – A Great Cleanser

Gather burdock roots with a long, narrow spade.

Burdock (Arctium spp.) is one of my favourite plants.  It is both a satisfying edible and effective medicinal.  Though it looks like rhubarb from a distance, burdock is hairy and has green stalks.  It is a biennial plant, meaning that it flowers every second year.  The flowering stalks bear clusters of beautiful bright pink flowers that seem to explode out of a green globe, which is covered in hook-tipped spines.

Though the stems and stalks are edible, my favourite part of this plant is the roots.  Burdock roots are known for their “blood purifying” or cleansing properties, and help to eliminate toxins from the body.  They are also very nourishing.  These properties can be detected with just a few sips of the root “tea”, which tends to turn a beautiful bluish green when left to steep overnight.  The cooked roots are also a great addition to stir fry, soups, or just on their own.

When gathering in the fall, harvest only the first year roots.  Second year plants use the energy and nutrients stored in the roots for reproduction and tend to get tough or mushy.  In the spring, any plants are fair game, as long as no seed stalks are apparent.  The roots may be a foot or more long, depending on soil conditions, so use a long, narrow spade to avoid breaking them off half way down.

Large, thick patches of burdock are cool places to hang out – literally!  Just duck down below the leaves and you’ll feel like you’re in another world!

To make a decoction from the roots of first-year plants place the chopped root in cold water, bringing to a boil and allow it to simmer on low for about 20 minutes. Use about ½ cup of dried roots to 1 quart of water. Drink a small amount (1-2 ounces) twice a day. First-year roots, cultivated and referred to as “gobo” in Asian countries, make a great dish when cooked in a sweet vinegar and soy broth. These make a great snack and I always make enough for the next few days or off-season, freezing what I can’t eat right away.

Burdock Root in Sweet Vinegar BrothBurdock root in sweet vinegar sauce.

4 large burdock roots from first year plants
½ tsp vinegar (1st amount)

1 ½ tbsp soy sauce
½ cup broth (your choice)
2 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp vinegar (2nd amount)

Scrape skin off burdock roots and cut roots into thin diagonal slices or julienne. To prevent flesh from discolouring during preparation, place slices immediately into cold water, soak for 5 minutes and drain. Cover with water, add vinegar (1st amount), bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 8-10 minutes and drain. In a saucepan combine all remaining ingredients, add the burdock and cook over moderate heat for 10-15 minutes. Serves 4-6.

I dry and save the scraped off peel to make tea, as the peel contains most of the medicinal qualities. It doesn’t take much root peel to make a decent tea. If it’s too strong for your taste, simply dilute it with more water.

Enjoy!

 

 

 

Why use wild plants at all?

Gathering wild caraway rootsWhether we reside in a rural community or urban center, edible, medicinal and otherwise useful plants abound.

Most of the plants we consider noxious or nuisance weeds are not only edible, but tasty and nutritious, offering stiff competition to our domestic garden vegetables.  Many are also capable of treating or curing common ills that plague our society.  Stinging nettle, for example, is super rich in calcium, while burdock is well known as a “blood purifier” and is used in herbal cancer remedies.

I am a big proponent of the health benefits that come from eating or using wild plants.  However, I am equally convinced that there are many additional health benefits that come from simply getting out there and gathering plants.

There is something liberating about harvesting wild plants and incorporating them into meals, medicines, baskets, cordage or any myriad of things.  Yes, it is free, but above all, it is freeing.  When I buy anything from a store, I feel little or no connection to it or its origins, and the memory of getting it is often one of haste and overwhelm from marketing pressures and the rush of people around me.   When I gather wild plants, I feel connected to nature.  I feel alive, relaxed and thankful for what I’m harvesting.  I also have a sense of being at least somewhat self-sufficient.  When I prepare food, weave a basket or make a salve from these plants, I c
ontinue to feel a connection to nature.  And every time I eat this food, or use this basket or salve, I relive the gathering experience.  I remember, clearly, the sweet yet medicinal smell of the balsam poplars that thickened the spring air, the cheerful sound of the song sparrow singing its heart out in the tree next to me, the reflection of sun and clouds in a tiny pool of crystal clear water, the shocking coolness of a frog on my foot, the porcupine waddling noisily by, and the refreshing flavour of wild mint joyfully plucked from an ephemeral wetland.

It takes time to secure food, medicines and all of the other things we need to live – whether it’s time spent at our jobs earning money for trade, or time spent gathering and preparing things, ourselves.  I hope that, through my website, you will be enticed to spend more time in fields and forests experiencing the joys and benefits of harvesting and using wild plants, yourself.