As Joe and I were getting ready to enjoy some sweet potato pancakes on his birthday, he looked at me like he was waiting for something. “So for putting on top the pancakes, I have some maple syrup, and some cranberry carrot jam I made last fall…” I paused, drawing out the suspense, and Joe finally asked, “But do we get to try the birch syrup?”
When I posted about Joe’s birthday, I promised a bit more information on one of the foods we enjoyed that day – the birch syrup. My jar of birch syrup came as a gift from my Uncle Glenn, who spent days this spring tapping birch trees up in Fairbanks, collecting their sap (which is a clear liquid, almost like water but with a light sweet taste – very refreshing!), and boiling it down until it turned into dark, fragrant, and sweet syrup. You can check out Glenn’s newly started blog focused on primitive living here. I’d shown Joe the precious jar of syrup a couple weeks before, and we’d both been waiting for the right time to open it up.
The birch syrup has a strong flavor, and is not quite as thick as maple syrup. For someone not quite used to the different flavor, you can combine parts birch syrup and parts maple, but it’s a pretty amazing experience on its own. Alaskan birch syrup can be bought online or in some stores, but it’s some very spendy stuff, testified to by the many days Glenn spent on the process of making his syrup. Birch is a beautiful tree; and the sap is one of many gifts it offers us.
People have been tapping trees to share in the sweetness they offer for centuries. The syrup, and resulting sugar, that comes from the birch, maple, and palm trees is a historic and natural sweetener that can be well incorporated into our diets. These sugars are a far cry from the refined sugar we all encounter daily. Both forms of white sugar, cane and beet, have been so broken down from their original state that sucrose is all that’s left, extracting any other minerals or energies that otherwise would have accompanied the sweetness, and making these broken, fragmented foods. It’s not surprising that they offer nothing to our bodies.
Natural sweeteners, such as honey, fruit, and syrups made from sap, are another matter. In these, the sugar is a whole food, accompanied with minerals and elements that can do our bodies good. Of course, even these natural sources need to be approached carefully and not used in excess. One of the biggest health problems in our modern diet is a sugar addiction, which is definitely something I still struggle with personally! It’s hard to reduce the amount of sugar we intake when we encounter it daily in so many forms.
One of the things to remember when approaching sweeteners, is that in traditional cultures, cooks would include the aspect of sweetness in other elements of the meal, rather than creating a whole course based around it. As Jessica Prentice says, in her beautiful book Full Moon Feast,
“Sweetness, when it is accompanied by protein, fat, and vitamin-rich vegetables, and
balanced by mineral-rich salt, soy sauce, fish sauce, or broth, is absorbed by the body slowly and evenly, without the usual spike and crash.”
Using syrup, or other sweeteners such as fruit and honey, from a local source is especially rewarding, as you are using something that has been produced by your community, from the land where you are centered. It makes sense that these would be more healthful foods for us than something grown on the other side of the world, shipped to a factory, packaged, and then shipped out to a store for easy, cheap access.
So, no recipe on this post, but just an encouragement to look at the sweeteners included in your diet and how they may be affecting you. Maybe even look at the trees around you and consider whether or not you may be able to make some of your own syrup!