Suzanne’s Blog: Tree Water

Nature is turning off the tap for birch sap. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.

The buds on the birch trees are just starting to turn green, which means it’s coming to the end of birch sap season.  For the past few weeks you could spot a birch tree being tapped in many Dawson City backyards.

Most of us have been tapping a tree in order to drink the cold, refreshing and nutrient rich birch water – loaded with thiamine (one of the Vitamin B’s) and manganese, as well as some Vitamin C, iron, riboflavin, zinc, calcium and potassium.  Birch water tastes like a super fresh and delicious glass of crystal clear water with only a rare hint of sweet if you look for it.

When the sap is running, the tree is actually pulling the sap from its roots all the way up to the top of the tree to feed its leaf buds which is an amazing anti-gravitational feat in itself.

Birch water goes bad within a couple of days, even in the fridge, so it needs to be consumed fresh.  Alternatively, you can freeze it  (even in ice cube trays) and save some frozen birch water to consume later in the year.  The tapping of one tree will produce a lot of birch water, so be careful not to tap more than you can consume.

Very few of us will boil down the sap we collect to make birch syrup.  We leave that to Sylvia Frisch and Berwyn Larson and their crew who are currently very busy, working around the clock, collecting sap from about 1500 trees and preparing Uncle Berwyn’s Yukon Birch Syrup to supply us all with the sweet stuff for the upcoming year.

My birch syrup supply is down to the last cupful.  We are consuming about 1  litre of birch syrup per week! So I decided to boil down some sap and see if I could supplement our supply until the end of syrup season when we can get our next 12 L bucket from Sylvia and Berwyn’s birch camp.

Birch syrup and maple syrup, although both sweet, are quite different in both taste and components.  Birch syrup contains fructose, the sugar in fruit, and it does not crystallize like maple syrup does.  Maple syrup contains sucrose, the sugar in table sugar.  One of the major differences between the two is the sugar content of the sap. It takes twice as much birch sap to make a litre of birch syrup, compared to making maple syrup.  In fact the ration of birch sap to syrup is an astounding 80:1!

What does that look like in real life?  I took my two largest pots and boiled down 14 litres of birch water.  All that sap produced a scant ¾ cup of syrup!

A big thank you to the birch trees for sharing some your sap and to Sylvia Frisch and Berwyn Larson and crew for all the hard work that goes into turning it into syrup!

If you haven’t yet tasted birch syrup, you really must.  It is delicious!  When using birch syrup in recipes, I find I don’t miss the absence of other spices such as cinnamon or allspice.  Check out the many recipes using birch syrup on our Recipe Page.

As the leaf buds start to turn green, the sap will take on a bitter taste, marking the end of the tapping season for another year.

> Check out photos of birch camp here

Suzanne’s Blog: Sugar Beets Sweeten the Deal

Sugar beets can be turned into sugar (in jar, at left) or syrup (right). Photo by Suzanne Crocker.

I love birch syrup and am grateful to Sylvia Frisch and Berwyn Larson who are raising their two daughters in the bush and producing birch syrup commercially.  During the past 4 ½ months of eating only local foods, we have consumed 24 litres of birch syrup.  I have discovered that the flavour of birch syrup alone can substitute for the ‘far east’ spices of cinnamon and all-spice.  I have even been known to down a shot of birch syrup, straight up, during those moments when, in a previous life, I would have grabbed a piece of chocolate – to get me through a moment of emotional or physical despair.

I also love David McBurney’s local honey – it is pure, delicate, and divine.  And it is treated like a delicacy in the family.  It also makes the perfect sweetener to enhance other delicate flavours that would be overpowered by the robust flavour of birch syrup.

But there are times, especially in baking, when chemistry is required and a liquid sugar option just doesn’t do the trick.  Now that I have local flour, and Christmas is coming, baking is on my mind.  So what to do when crystalized sugar is required?

Birch syrup, unlike maple syrup, does not crystalize.  I learned this last April while visiting Birch Camp.  So, with birch sugar no longer an option, I ordered GMO-free sugar beet seeds.  I have never had any luck growing regular beets, so I recruited others to grow the sugar beets for me –  the great gardeners Paulette Michaud and Becky Sadlier.  Unbeknownst to me, long-time Dawson farmer, Grant Dowdell, also had my year of eating local on his mind and ordered non-GMO sugar beet seeds to see if they would grow in the north.  The sugar beets grew marvelously for all, confirming that they are indeed a reasonable crop for the North.   They like warm days and cool nights – perfect for a Dawson City summer.  I ended up with 350 pounds worth to experiment with!

Sugar beets contain approximately 20% sucrose, the same sugar found in sugar cane.  One quarter of the world’s refined sugar comes from sugar beets. In Canada, Taber, Alberta is the industrial hot spot for growing and processing sugar beets into sugar.  On a commercial scale, lime (calcium oxide) and carbon dioxide are added to form calcium carbonate which solidifies and pulls out any impurities – thus resulting in familiar white sugar.  No such additions for a local home-made sugar, so the resulting sugar is brown with a richer taste.

There is a paucity of information out there on just how to make sugar from sugar beets at home, so I gave up on research and moved to trial and error.   After all, with 350 pounds of sugar beets, there was room for experimentation and failure.  And failure there has been!  Although no failure has yet to see itself in the compost.  The family seems more than willing to devour the failures – be they sugar beet toffee, sugar beet gum, sugar beet tea.  Even burnt beet sugar has found a use. (Thank goodness because there has  been a lot of burnt beet sugar!)

In the process, I have also discovered the wonder of the sugar beet – a root vegetable that was previously unknown to me.  Sugar beets are often touted as a food for livestock or a green manure crop so I was expecting the taste of the sugar beet itself to be unpalatable.  But it is just the opposite!   Cooked up, it is a delicious, sweet, white beet.  The sugar beet leaves are also edible.  And amazingly, even after the sugar is extracted, the sugar beet pulp remains sweet and delicious.  I’m afraid the local Dawson livestock will be getting less sugar beet pulp than previously anticipated this year.

One thing is for certain – processing sugar beets into sugar requires time and patience.  Here are my step-by-step instructions on how to make syrup (easy) and sugar (difficult) from sugar beets.

Sugar was first extracted from sugar beets in the mid 18th century.   In the early 19th century, during the Napoleonic wars when French ports were cut off from the rest of the world, Napoleon encouraged wide-scale sugar beet production and processing.  France remains one of the world leaders in sugar beet production and most of Europe’s sugar comes from sugar beets, rather than sugar cane.

Consider adding non-GMO sugar beet seeds to your next seed order.  In Canada, they can be found from Salt Spring Seeds and from T&T seeds.  Sugar beets grow well in the north and are a delicious root vegetable in their own right.  But don’t throw out the water you cook them in, as this water is sweet and can easily be used to make beet syrup and beet syrup candy.   And, if you are brave, sugar!  If you live in an area populated by deer, be warned that sugar beet tops are a great attractant for deer.  Word is now out to the Yukon moose so perhaps next year Dawson’s sugar beet rows will require fencing!

> View the recipe for Sugar Beet Sugar and Syrup

Give tips, get lunch!

Spruce Tips ready to become a delicious syrup - Photo by The North Woods Cookshop
Spruce Tips ready to become a delicious syrup – Photo by The North Woods Cookshop

Your foraging adventures not only can help you stock your pantry with wild goodies, but they could also get you a delicious free lunch!

The North Woods Cookshop and Lunchbox, a Dawson City based catering company, is looking for generous foragers to share a bit of their spruce tip loot with them. For every four cups of spruce tips you bring them, they will treat you to a free lunch at their amazing new food truck, located in the lot next to the Westminster Hotel.

They have great plans for those spruce tips, including delicious syrups for their homemade sodas, as well as the spice mixes, rubs and gourmet salts they are known for.

Hurry up before the picking season ends, and remember to spread your harvest out over many trees to keep them healthy and strong. Georgia and Allie will thank you!

Refreshing and Versatile Birch Sap

Birch sap makes a delicious drink fresh from the trees – refreshing water taste with only a hint of sweetness – but packed full of minerals. Birch sap contains natural carbohydrates, organic acids, fruit acids, potassium, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, manganese, zinc, sodium, iron and copper, vitamins B (group) and vitamin C.  It is said to have diuretic and detoxifying effects on the body, and it has been used as a folk remedy for many ailments in Europe and Asia for hundreds of years.

But birch sap needs to be consumed right away – it doesn’t last more than 24 hours even in the fridge.  Sylvia Frisch, however, tried pressure canning the birch sap and storing it in her root cellar and it preserved very well and tastes great!

Photo by Suzanne Crocker

Also, Sylvia Frisch took advantage of the natural yeasts in birch sap to try and make vinegar.  She bottled fresh birch sap last year and added a few raisins or black currents in each bottle and stored them in her root cellar.  Suzanne and Sylvia cracked one open last week at Birch Camp and it was a delicious light white vinegar. They have bottled some fresh birch sap with local low bush cranberries this year and will see if they have equal success.

Will keep you posted!

Suzanne talked about her search for locally-sourced vinegar on a recent episode of Yu-Kon Grow It on CBC North’s A New Day with host Sandi Coleman.

Photo by Suzanne Crocker

Sweeeeeeet! A Bucket of Birch Syrup

Suzanne’s main sweetener for her year of eating local will be birch syrup from Berwyn Larson and Sylvia Frisch’s birch camp not far from Dawson. The sap has been running well and Suzanne is starting her year with a 12-litre bucket of delicious Uncle Berwyn’s Yukon Birch Syrup .

Photo by Scott Buchanan

Suzanne recently talked about her experience at the camp on Yu-Kon Grow It on CBC North‘s A New Day with host Sandi Coleman.