On several occasions I have visited the forager and conservationist Tama Matsouka at her property in New Jersey for various foraging excursions. This year she decided to offer a more hands-on approach for participants during these visits. She along with the Meadows and More team are calling them the Wayfaring Workshops. Each workshop will have a theme tied to one of the six elements and to the season. The overall goal of the workshops is “to help us rediscover our human instinct for self reliance and innovation, to sharpen our senses and minds in order to better navigate our ways through uncertain and complex times”. A little dose of doomsday mixed with DIY with a focus on nature may be the best way to describe it. I eagerly signed up for the first workshop of the series held on February 24th which would be focused on water. We would discuss larger clean water issues, learn to identify and tap trees for sap, and even do a water tasting.
Upon arrival we were greeted with lemon verbena tea made with Tama’s well water. We discussed larger water issues effecting our regional landscape such as runoff and pollution from agricultural fertilizers and chemicals. Also we touched on how a lack of clean water around the globe is already becoming a major issue, and water is such a valuable commodity in many places. Large urban populations such as Johannesburg are changing their daily lives and routines around a lack of access to clean water. In general we need to value the very little clean water that exists on the planet and work towards keeping it in existence.
We were handed our water kits which included a survival straw for purifying water while camping or traveling and a bucket, drill bit, and tap for accessing water from our region’s trees. The first step before tapping would be identifying the tree type, so we headed out into the woods to look at some bark and branches.
Since it is winter we needed to be able to differentiate the trees by their bark characteristics and their branching (directly opposite or alternate). It is surprising but once you take a hard look at some bark you can really notice the different patterns, colors, and textures. Here are a few examples of trees dominate in Tama’s woods that we identified.
Certain trees provide more water with a higher sugar content than others, making them ideal for tapping this time of year. When the temperatures get below freezing at night and the day is above freezing the water that the trees stored for winter begins to flow. Some of the starch in the trunks and roots is converted to sugar and with the warmth the sap rises. It goes through a capillary network though the tree even against gravity. The water molecules stick to the starches and they are attracted to the wall of the plant which creates this upward force and capillary action.
Once we identified our maple or black walnut trees, we made sure they were at least 10 inches in diameter before tapping. We drilled in a hole upwards about 1.5 inches deep. We tapped in our spigot and attached our buckets, and immediately the sap was flowing from the maple trees. We even got to drink it straight from the source!
After we had each successfully identified and tapped our tree, we went inside to do a watering tasting. This may sound odd since we tend to think of water as flavorless. However, the reality is that all water has various minerals and pH levels that make it’s taste and texture unique. We compared six types of water. Here were our group tasting notes.
Water tasting notes
Distilled: sourness at the finish, flat texture
Tama’s well water: more mineral flavors, lengthy thirst-quenching finish
Boiled well water: brought out more saline notes
NYC tap water: decent texture and finish, chlorine flavor present
Bottled water: no depth or finish, drying effect on palate made us thirstier
Maple water: sweetness due to natural Brix level of 6, refreshing finish
Next the guest pastry chef, Rebecca Eichenbaum, led a discussion of reading the Brix content of a substance with a refractometer. The maple water in it’s pure form was approximately 6 on Brix scale out of 100. Generally most maple syrup is 66 on a Brix scale, as maple water must be reduced down from 30-40 gallons to create one gallon syrup. For black walnut water the Brix was slightly lower, about 5, but it takes a similar reduction as maple sap because there is more pectin in it.
Rebecca had reduced some of Tama’s maple and black walnut sap for us to try, but only halfway to syrup at 10-12 Brix. In this state she was able to make the maple into a delectable, refreshing granita. She also cooked some further down into syrup which was really delicious. The maple was subtle and floral – almost like a honey – since it was done over induction burner instead of the traditional wood-burning fire in larger sugar shacks. The black walnut was rich and nutty with a really complex flavor. Other examples of trees that can be tapped for sap are birch, sycamore, and box elder.
All in all it was a great workshop. It not only gave us each a new life skill specific to the season and the trees of our region, but in participating I gained a new perspective on this element we often take for granted. If we can learn some lessons from the trees by conserving and keeping our water pure, we could then hopefully have access to this precious resource in the future.