Deanna Nelson and Paul Haldeman of Zoar Tapatree
All photographs property of Zoar Tapatree
My first memory of real maple syrup has nothing to do with pancakes. The first impression I had of its transcendent power as a forest’s sweetest essence was from reading in the second grade Little House in the Big Woods, when “Laura and Mary each had a pan, and Pa and Ma showed them how to pour the dark syrup in little streams onto the snow...’Bite it,’ said Pa, and his blue eyes twinkled. Each one bit off one little crinkle, and it was sweet. It crumbled in their mouths. It was better even than their Christmas candy. ‘Maple sugar,’ said Pa.”
Better than Christmas candy?! I was hooked and have been sampling artisanal maple syrups and forcing my mom and, now, my kids to create maple candy ever since. I'm a tough critic; even the most rarefied artisanal syrups have a hard time measuring up with the stuff of my imagination Ma, Pa, Mary, and Laura were gobbling up.
I may have met my match. Paul Haldeman, a retired military officer and life-long maple-tapper hobbyist, and Deanna Nelson, an assistant attorney general in charge of the Watertown regional office, are doing more than arguably anyone else to return maple syrup to that standard of ancient glory.
We’re entering into traditional maple season right now — a time New Yorkers recognize as that funky tug-of-war between winter and spring, when the snow (this year in short supply) begins to melt during the day, then freezes up again at night — when the sap from maple trees begins to flow like honey. Officially, the New York State Maple Producers’ Association has declared the first two weekends in March as “Maple Weekends,” but, in reality, it often occurs from mid-to-late February through some time in April.
To prepare for the glories that await, I sat down with Paul and Deanna to find out more about their mapling operation, Zoar Tapatree, which encompasses about 400 acres across their two properties.
New York Makers: Tell me what inspired this project. Quite a change of pace for an assistant attorney general.
Deanna Nelson: Paul has been a tapper since childhood, and we realized that we could really do something special with the land we have and the number of maple trees on our properties. We knew that Paul would shoulder most of the burden during the day, and that I’d help out during evenings and on the weekend. At the height of mapling season I’ll take a few vacation days here and there, but, really, it’s my passion. It’s what I do instead of watching TV. From the beginning, we wanted our approach to be completely different because even small-scale operations in many cases have become commodified.
NYM: Can you explain what you mean by that? Isn’t maple syrup just maple syrup?
DN: Yes and no. For example, we don’t use reverse osmosis. The process of reverse osmosis entails using a semi-permeable membrane to separate water from sugar, minerals, and other impurities. But repeatedly using the process as many syrup producers do can strip away other micronutrients and minerals and can subtly affect the flavor. We also don’t use high-pressure filtration. Most producers use that to keep the syrup clear and unclouded. Instead, we take down the entire sap at low temperatures, then decant those bottles so you’ll get micronutrients that modern syrup doesn’t have.
NYM: Tell me about your land. I believe it’s near the town of Rodman in Jefferson County?
Paul Haldeman: It’s a magical place. It’s two glacially carved valleys with a limestone base under the soil. That’s very different from other New York State maple producers, most of which have land resting on granite-type rocks. Like coffee and wine, the type of soil, the waterways close to it and running through it, everything about the land informs the flavor of the maple syrup.
NYM: Can you explain more about the aspect of terroir? That’s fascinating.
PH: Last year, we had 34 flows, and each day was different. Because of the way we do things, we can taste the differences between batches, and we’re beginning to assess how seasonal changes — more or less sun, rain, different patches of land — affect the flavors. We keep our batches separate and then decide later in the season how we want to approach them. Some we keep separate, and others we bottle in batches to extract certain qualities.
NYM: Can you give me an example of how specific weather or seasonal changes affect flavor?
DN: When the moon is full, our maple syrup becomes much higher in calcium. It’s fascinating! And we use those batches to create a special line of syrups specifically designed for coffee drinkers who are avoiding dairy. Just a few drops cuts the acid, but doesn’t really impact the flavor too much otherwise. A lot of people use our syrups to replace sugar in coffee and other applications because it’s high in micronutrients and also dissolves much better in both hot and cold liquids, much better than honey or sugar.
NYM: How has the weather this winter compared to last winter? Will global warming have an effect on maple farming and if so, how?
DN: The trees, as living beings, are very responsive to the climate, celestial pull, and all other aspects of the environment. This winter has been cycling warm to cold — we'll get snow, then a melt (for example we got 3 feet last week and it has melted down to a pack of about 10-inches). We are going to start making syrup tonight (March 5) -- our first batch of 2020 -- so it is too early to see what impact this will have on the syrups. Similarly, we have no idea how long the season will run. Sugarhouses in Pennsylvania are reporting that they're done for the season. Vermont and Central New York started boiling about 10-days ago. Global warming is a threat to maple producers — it can stress the trees, shorten the season, and/or become a more welcome host to invasive species like the lanternfly, a threat to sugar maple and other trees. It is entirely possible that maples could fall victim to a blight or infestation that eliminates or greatly reduces the maple forest (Remember chestnuts? American Elms? Ash?). Paul lectures me on being too concerned about the future, but part of me wants to start stockpiling!
Shop "The Unofficial Field Guide to American Maple Syrup: Exploring the potential one lick at a time" by Deanna Nelson, $10
NYM: So how do you recommend using your syrups in culinary applications?
PH: Forget pancakes. I love using them in tea — hot or cold — or I pair it with cheese or charcuteries.
DN: My kids add syrup to the pan drippings and reduce it for a sauce/topping for their burgers or other meat; we use it on salmon.
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Paul and Deanna shared a few ideas and recipes with us:
Whole Maple in your Coffee! Tapatree Whole Maple is naturally high in calcium, and is super soluble, which makes it an ideal addition to your hot or cold coffee. It curbs the acidity and lifts the naturally occurring flavors in your java. Pick a batch with similar tones, or play with contrasting melodies!
Pair with cheeses and meats on a charcuterie board! The sweetness and flavor pairs well with the saltiness of cheese and spiced meats and also adds a special layer to fruits and nuts. We like the earlier syrups on mild cheeses, such as brie or Havarti, and the darker, late batches are amazing on a bit of chevre or a sharp cheddar. The earlier and midseason batches are also delicious filling on fresh raspberry or drizzled on a sweet bread.
Skip the soda and make a lemonade by the glass! A simple ratio of 1:2:4 (Tapatree: lemon juice: water) creates a refreshing, healthy drink. Take advantage of the micronutrients and antioxidants of Whole Maple while skipping refined sweeteners or chemical substitutes. We like the early-to-midseason syrups best for this application.
Salad Enhancement Mix 1 Tablespoon Syrup (the darkest work great), with 1 Tablespoon Soy Sauce...toss with your favorite greens or grains for a wonderful kick of flavor without adding an oily dressing.
Bacon, anyone? The complexity and intensity of the late batches added to your weekend bacon make an ordinary delicacy into a special treat! These late batches are also a great option when added to pan drippings then reduced to create a delicious sauce for your hamburger or steak.
Rosemary Maple Bourbon Sour Makes two drinks (You may want to double up!)
3 shots bourbon
1 & 1/2 shots fresh lemon juice
3/4 shot dark amber maple syrup (we recommend something like a late-midseason Tapatree syrup, one which is a little hearty)
1 large sprig of rosemary (plus 2 small sprigs for garnish)
Crush the large sprig of rosemary in your hand and add it to the shaker. Add the bourbon, lemon juice, Tapatree syrup, and ice to above the level of the liquid and shake vigorously for 15 seconds. Strain the mixture into rocks glasses containing large cubes of ice and garnish with remaining rosemary sprigs. No herbs on hand? This is delicious sans herbs as well!
Maple Roasted Almonds
2 cups whole almonds (unsalted)
1/4 cup Tapatree Whole Maple Syrup
2 teaspoons sea salt
1/2 teaspoon vegetable oil
Mix almonds, syrup and salt in a bowl. (We often toss in some cayenne and/or cinnamon at this point for a little more kick!) Add oil and toss to coat. Spread coated almonds on parchment lined baking sheet. Bake at 350-degrees for approximately 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. (Keep a close eye on these babies, because things can get out of hand pretty quickly!) Remember that you're really just heating the nuts and dehydrating the syrup til it forms a hard shell. Finished nuts will have a mahogany sheen, and will still be on the sticky side when you bring them out of the oven. Once you've removed the hot pans, slide the parchment and nuts off the trays and let the nuts cool on the paper resting on a cutting board. Break apart clumps as they cool. The hot nuts will continue to cook a bit on removal from the oven, leaving you with a shiny dry finish. Store in an airtight container after the nuts are totally cooled.
Tapatree Whole Maple is the perfect addition to your morning oatmeal, unsweetened yogurt, autumn squash...anything that would benefit from a flavor lift!
Tapatree Hot Cocoa
10-ounces water or your favorite milk
1 tablespoon cocoa (or a handful of bittersweet chocolate chips)
1 ounce of Tapatree midseason syrup
Grind or two of sea salt
Spice it up with a shake of cayenne, cinnamon, or ginger
Whipped cream, if you choose
Heat the liquid, then whisk in chocolate, then Tapatree syrup, salt and spices (if desired). Heat without boiling. Prepare your favorite mug by dipping the rim in a bit more syrup, then carefully pour the cocoa into the mug. Top with whipped cream or a bit of cinnamon.
1/4 cup maple syrup
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon garlic salt
1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 pound salmon
In a small bowl, mix the maple syrup, soy sauce, garlic, garlic salt, and pepper. Place salmon in a shallow glass baking dish, and coat with the maple syrup mixture. Cover the dish, and marinate salmon in refrigerator for 30 minutes, turning once. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C). Place the baking dish in the preheated oven, and bake salmon uncovered 20 minutes, or until easily flaked with a fork.
Paul and Deanna also shared tasting notes from last year’s flows. A few of my favorites:
DAY 19: Steamed milk and caramel butterscotch with hints of coffee and dates. Amber/Rich.
DAY 29: Smokey brown sugar crackle with subtle layers of fruit, toasted nut finish. Dark/Robust.
DAY 32: Anise notes with a coffee-praline finish. Dark/Robust.
I will always love my maple candy. But now I’m inspired to explore maple’s savory side as well, starting with my weekend bacon!