GRAND MARAIS -- There's the Call of the Wild in the birch syrup produced here.
It doesn't have that saturated sweetness of mass-produced syrups. An apt comparison might be wild game versus store-bought meats. Beyond the wow factor, birch syrup has a sweet tang that lingers, similar to a wine. One taste, and you want to sit in the corner like a bear with a jar of honey.
That taste convinced Rory and Glenda Hart to reconsider their 47 hectares of forest here. Now they view it more as a garden. Last year, they began tapping 1,200 birch trees, under company name the Canadian Birch Company. They plan to eventually tap 4,500 trees.
The Free Press caught up to the Harts during harvest, which was delayed a month by the late spring. "Any day out doing this in the woods is a great day," said Rory, under cool but sunny conditions last week.
'Any day out doing this in the woods is a great day'
The harvest is quite a sight. Their property is dense with birch trees, still leafless as of last week and bleached clean by the sun and snowmelt.
Neither do the Harts employ old-fashioned spigots for tapping. It's all intravenous now. Pale blue tubes carry the watery sap down into white buckets on the uneven ground. The tall, narrow trees look almost like patients, in white hospital gowns, hooked up to IV poles.
The pails are emptied every 24 hours. The Harts employ about a dozen people for the month-long harvest. As soon as the birch's catkins begin to flower, the taste of the sap turns and the harvest is over.
The Harts don't tap trees smaller than eight inches in diameter. One can calculate the age of a birch by multiplying its diameter by five. (The diameter is obtained by dividing the circumference by three.) So trees eight inches in diameter are over 40 years old. The trees aren't damaged by tapping at that age. "It's just like giving blood," said Glenda.
Birch trees have a lifespan of 65 to 85 years.
The Canadian Birch Company, 85 kilometres north of Winnipeg, is a mom-and-pop operation -- and it isn't. When you see all the huge holding tanks and machinery, it's obvious this is a major investment for the Harts, who are in their 50s and both still working full time at other jobs: Glenda as a resource teacher at an inner-city school and Rory as a locomotive engineer with CN Rail.
They have large, industrial-scale plastic vats and a syrup shack that looks like a modern dairy inside. The stainless steel evaporator and pasteurizing machines are so reflective, a woman could apply makeup in front of them. The machinery was purchased from a maple syrup equipment manufacturer in Quebec.
It takes 100 litres of sap to make one litre of syrup, or a one per cent ratio versus 2.5 per cent for maple syrup. So a lot of sap is needed and the evaporator has to work overtime. A wood-pellet stove provides even and cheap heat for the evaporator.
That ratio, and its being very labour-intensive, drives up costs. So consumers should be prepared for sticker shock. It retails from $25 to $30 for a 250-millimetre bottle.
It's why the Harts are targeting the upscale, premium market in larger cities such as Toronto and New York, as well as centres in Germany, Italy and France. It's still available locally but Winnipeg doesn't have a large enough market willing to pay that kind of price.
Deals abroad are being negotiated. The Harts just returned from Canada's largest food trade show, put on by SIAL Canada in Toronto, to rave reviews. Their syrup was also a recent finalist in the Great Manitoba Food Fight.
Glenda says they are just scratching the surface of birch's uses. Its leaves make a medicinal tea, and its sap contains xylitol a natural sweetener that has a lower impact on blood sugar than other sugars and is touted as safe for people with diabetes or hypoglycemia.
Perhaps most intriguing is the black chaga mushroom that grows on birch trees that contains betulinic acid, which is a powerful agent to fight cancer cells. Russian novelist and Nobel laureate Alexandr Solzhenitsyn introduced chaga to the West when his main character in the novel Cancer Ward is cured by the mushroom, according to Wikipedia.
Birch syrup can be drizzled on ice cream, cheese cake, porridge, etc., or glazed on pulled pork, steaks and other meats as well as vegetables such as carrots. Amber birch syrup is produced by the trees earliest in the harvest and is sweeter, therefore best for desserts. "Cinnamon and amber syrup is unbelievable," says Glenda. The later, darker syrup works best with meats and salads, etc. For more information see www.canadianbirchcompany.com.
Canadian Birch Company syrup is available at Deluca's, the Almond Tree at The Forks, some Vita Health stores, Organza, the Upper Crust Bakery, Through the Arbor in Pine Falls and the Pine Ridge Farmer's Market in summer.