Maple Syrup: Recognizing Fine Work
Maple syrups are not created equal. As with wine and chocolate, terroir and crop varieties dictate most elements of the final flavor profile, but harvesting, evaporation and storage practices also play a major role. Those secondary factors, when handled well, preserve and enhance the character of the sap, and when poorly managed, can ruin anything the syrup ultimately touches. To make a phenomenal waffle is therefore to source finer syrups and pair their flavor characteristics with those of each waffle recipe.
To be sure, there are some syrups that are exquisite for the smooth, well-balanced, pure maple experience they evoke. Mount Cabot and Andersonville are always the two best examples that come to mind. Far from being bland, they’re sophisticated classics that work well under almost any circumstances. Both are also excellent when you’re looking to blend maple with other syrups and flavors, such as in my Maple-Tangelo Syrup.
Textbook maple perfection, however, isn’t always suited to a particular waffle or to any individual’s palate. There are plenty of times when one wants more nuance or even desires to be assaulted by strong notes. These flavors have been formally categorized, and with some practices, can be picked out. Vanilla, brown sugar, butter, raw nuts, bread, grass, fresh flowers, and more are, to varying degrees, present in most syrups. When a waffle’s flavor is fairly tame, such as in my Cream Waffle, or particularly pronounced, as in my Yeasted Buttermilk Waffle, having these more complex maples can help to either add dimension or round out the experience.
The most crucial part of developing an understanding of both your own tastes and the needs of any given waffle is to work only with single origin syrups; unlike Scotch, there are no artisanal blends being produced (though I hope to one day change that). Every sugar bush (maple farm) has its own profile, and while that certainly varies both within the maple season and from year-to-year, these single sources offer a fairly reliable experience. Best of all, assuming you purchase a quart or more at a time, they’re generally less expensive than syrups from grocery stores.
Industrial maple production and distribution, which feeds the supermarkets, often relies on 100s or even 1000s of small-scale producers selling surplus to maple syrup aggregators. The quality of those individual producers varies widely, but assuming they pass minimal standards set by the aggregators, they become blended into a single product. The result is usually poor and even offensive. It’s the reason many people say they don’t like the taste of pure maple syrup. They’ve simply never had a good one.
The more syrups you experience, the more likely you are enjoy their complexities and their value to the waffle experience. For me, that means purchasing 15-20 new varieties, every year – as you can see in the above photo of my 2014 acquisitions. Even though Vermont and Quebec are the two most prominent regional sources for maple, excellent work comes from their surrounding states and provinces. Within the U.S., northern states like Maine, New Hampshire, and New York each produce hundreds of thousands of gallons, annually. Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Indiana and even Kentucky each have notable work, if not for taste than at least for novelty.
While I’d love to see maple syrups respected in the same way chocolate, coffee, and wine are, the simple fact is that a single serving of maple syrup is phenomenally more expensive than chocolate and coffee and, though comparable in price to some wines, incapable of getting you drunk. It’s unlikely there will ever be a significant market for the better work. On the bright side, that’s good for me and other maple enthusiasts, who are likely to long enjoy $16 quarts of one of the greatest products ever known to man or waffle.