The drip, drip, drip they are hearing up north isn't melting snow; it's maple sap.
Sticky-sweet and amber-colored, maple syrup carries a hint of springtime in its deep, slightly smoky flavor.
When temperatures climb into the 40s, dormant maple trees shake off their winter slumber and begin pumping sugary, nutrient-rich sap from their trunks to their branches. This event, known as the sugar run, is the moment that Minnesota maple syrup producers wait for all year.
From mid-March until mid-April, producers collect as much sap as possible until maple tree buds begin flowering and the sap develops a bitter taste.
Maple syrup has long been a staple on the American table. In colonial times, it was used to lessen dependency on sugar from the West Indies. Today it's used as a locally sourced, natural ingredient and an alternative to corn syrup and artificial sweeteners.
While Vermont remains king of U.S. maple syrup production, Minnesota's reputation has grown. In 2000, Chris Cordes of Wild Country Maple Syrup in Lutsen, Minn. -- the state's largest producer of maple syrup -- won first place for dark amber syrup from the International Maple Syrup Institute in Burlington, Vt.
"Minnesota has a pretty good name for itself in the maple syrup community," said Cordes. "When we won in Vermont, it turned some heads."
Minnesota's syrup reputation correlates with rising demand for the product, said Cordes. The process is labor- intensive, though. Depending on the time of season and the sap's sugar content, it can take from 28 to 80 gallons of sap to produce a single gallon of syrup.
Once the sap has been boiled down, the resulting syrup can be used far beyond breakfast.
"I pretty much think of it as an all-natural sweetener, rather than just a pancake topping," said Debbie Morrison of Sapsucker Farms in Mora, Minn.
She suggests drizzling maple syrup over vanilla ice cream and sprinkling a few nuts on top for "the best maple nut ice cream ever." She also sweetens yogurt and cereal with it, and stirs a bit into her coffee each morning.
Stu Peterson, president of the Minnesota Maple Syrup Producers Association, agrees. "The motto of the industry, on our farm at least, is 'Maple syrup! It's not just for pancakes anymore.'" Peterson owns Camp Aquila Pure Maple Syrup in Dent, Minn.
Many grades of flavor
The darker the syrup, the more maple flavor it has and the later in the year it was produced, said Cordes.
• Grade A: Light-colored and lightest flavor of all grades, often used as pancake topping, most familiar to consumers. It has three subcategories: light amber, medium amber and dark amber.
• Grade B: Darker and more flavorful, it's popular among chefs and bakers.
• Grade C: Darkest in flavor and color, it is not for table use, but to flavor non-food products such as tobacco.
George Wilkes, owner of the Angry Trout Cafe in Grand Marais, Minn., uses Grade B maple syrup in his kitchen for a variety of reasons.
"It's a local food that says something about our area and community. It's a high-quality product and we know the producers," said Wilkes. "And it's good stuff."
At the Angry Trout, diners find a maple Dijon mustard salad dressing, maple barbecue sauce, maple sundaes and maple layer cakes. Also on the menu is a maple-cream soda, made by stirring maple syrup into carbonated water.
If you prefer your maple syrup straight up, the Angry Trout offers a shot of pure maple syrup on its dessert menu. The item was inspired by local syrup producers who sometimes dip a small glass into vats of maple syrup to take a taste, said Wilkes.
"Sometimes it's good to just drink a little," he said.
More uses on the menu
Peterson said his favorite uses for maple syrup are in a pecan maple chicken recipe and as a sweetener in homemade granola. Morrison likes to drizzle a bit of maple syrup over broiled salmon that's been marinated in lemon juice and garlic salt, near the end of the salmon's cooking time.
The syrup is easily incorporated into slightly sweet, savory sauces such as barbecue, teriyaki and salad dressings. With its smoky flavor, maple syrup pairs well with Dijon mustard, bourbon and pecans in recipes. It can be used as glaze for pork, chicken and fish, or drizzled over root vegetables and squash before baking.
While maple syrup is an easy substitute for honey or corn syrup, it's a little trickier to use as a sugar substitute in baking. For baked goods, the producers association recommends substituting 3/4 cup to 11/2 cups maple syrup for each cup of sugar and reducing the dominant liquid in the recipe by 2 to 4 tablespoons.
If you prefer to keep maple syrup on the breakfast table, producers recommend that you heat the syrup before using to enhance the flavor.
Cordes said he's noticed that maple sap picks up specific flavors of the area where the trees grow. The Wild Country syrup he currently produces has a distinct vanilla and butter flavor, while syrup he produced in the Taylors Falls/North Branch region years ago had more cinnamon notes. But no matter where your syrup comes from or how you use it, it is sure to offer a sweet, flavorful taste of the spring thaw.
Ada Igoe is a freelance writer who lives on the Gunflint Trail, outside Grand Marais, Minn. Reach her at email@example.com.