Monday, February 26, 2018

Native Americans making maple sugar described by Chateaubriand

Chateaubriand - the vicomte not his steak - left France in 1791 during the Revolution to spend a year in America.  In his book, published in 1826, he described how the native Americans gathered, then boiled the maple sap into syrup, ending as small cones of sugar. 

François-René de Chateaubriand (1768-1848) spent a month at a Native American camp and wrote what he learned from them in his book Voyage en Amerique.  He used the term Savage which is rather jarring to modern readers.  The image is from a Canadian 1883 weekly article "Sugar-Making Among the Indians in the North."

"The juice of the maple was and still is collected by the Savages twice a year. The first collection takes place about the end of February, March, or April, according to the latitude of the country in which the sugar-maple grows. The liquor collected after the slight night-frosts is converted into sugar by being boiled over a strong fire. The quantity of sugar obtained by this process differs according to the qualities of the tree. This sugar, light of digestion, and of a greenish colour, has an agreeable and somewhat acid taste.

The second collection takes place when the sap of the tree has not sufficient consistency to become sugar. This sap is condensed into a sort of treacle or syrup, which, dissolved in spring water, furnishes a cooling beverage during the heats of summer.

Great care is taken to preserve the maple-woods of the red and white species. The most productive maples are those the bark of which looks black and scabby. The Savages conceive that these appearances are occasioned by the black red-headed woodpecker, which pierces such trees in which the sap is most abundant. They consequently respect this woodpecker as an intelligent bird and a good spirit.

About four feet from the ground two holes are made in the trunk of the maple, three quarters of an inch deep, and bored obliquely upward, to facilitate the effusion of the sap.

These first two incisions are turned to the south: two similar ones are made towards the north. These holes are afterwards bored, according as the tree yields its sap, to the depth of two inches and a half.

Two wooden troughs are placed on the two sides of the tree facing the north and south, and tubes of elder are introduced into the holes, to conduct the sap into these troughs.
Every twenty-four hours the sap which has run off is removed; it is carried into sheds covered with bark, and boiled in a pan of water, care being taken at the same time to skim it. When it is reduced to one half by the action of a clear fire, it is poured into another pan, in which it is again boiled till it has acquired the consistence of a syrup. Being then taken from the fire, it is allowed to stand for twelve hours. At the expiration of that time it is emptied into a third pan; but care must be taken not to shake the sediment deposited at the bottom of the liquor.

The third pan is in its turn set upon charcoal half-burned and without flame. A little fat is thrown into this syrup to prevent its boiling over. When it begins to be ropy, it must be poured into a fourth and last wooden vessel, called the cooler. A strong female keeps stirring it round without stopping, with a cedar stick, till it acquires the grain of sugar. She afterwards runs it off into bark moulds, which give to the coagulated fluid the shape of small conical loaves: the operation is then finished.

In making molasses only the process ends with the second boiling.

The maple juice keeps running for a fortnight, and this fortnight is a continued festival. Every morning the maple wood, usually irrigated by a stream of water, is visited. Groups of Indians of both sexes are dispersed at the foot of the trees; the young people dance or play at different games; the children bathe under the inspection of the Sachems."

Travels in America and Italy, Volume 1  London: 1828  by François-René vicomte de Chateaubriand

Image: "Sugar-Making Among the Indians in the North."  Canadian Illustrated News. May 12, 1883

©2018 Patricia Bixler Reber
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