Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Maple Syrup Festival at North Park Nature Center

I've lived in "Greater Chicagoland" for my entire life, save for the two years I lived in Europe. And I lived in Chicago, within the city limits, for close to 15 years until a recent move put me just a bit outside the city limits. But I never heard of the North Park Nature Center until a few years ago when my wife (who is an unrelenting recycler) nagged me into going over there for an electronics recycling event that they were having, where you could drop off old computers, cellphones, etc, to be disposed of properly.

I was amazed to find this fairly large complex hidden in plain sight just off Pulaski, between Foster and Peterson. The place is huge. It's hard to believe that such a big chunk of the north side has somehow managed to survive without developers moving in, but there it is. Go see for yourself.

It's really quite an amazing and wonderful place. I'll quote from their website:

North Park Village Nature Center is located on the northwest side of Chicago and includes a forty-six acre nature preserve and also an educational facility. The Nature Center and preserve are situated within the North Park Village complex, a cluster of buildings located on approximately 155 acres of land.

The nature preserve features trails that wind through woodlands, wetlands, praire and savannas. A discovery room, a hands-on table of natural objects and interactive displays are highlights of the Nature Center. Programs offered include public programs for pre-schoolers, school age children, families and adults; an eco-explorers summer camp and outreach programs.

Open 7 Days a Week, 362 Days a Year!
(closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day)
10:00 am - 4:00 pm

The mission of the North Park Village Nature Center is to provide urban citizens with an opportunity to interact with wildlife, plants and other natural resources through environmental education and access to improved natural landscapes.

There are plenty of opportunities to learn about and enjoy the riches of nature at the only Nature Center in Chicago - please come for a visit!

We walked the nature preserve when we were there last fall for their annual Harvest Festival, and were thrilled to find ourselves deep in the woods, watching frogs, hearing birds, dragonflies, and crickets, and--more than anything else--enjoying nature right in the middle of the city. The festival featured live music, a scarecrow-building contest, a storyteller, and a farmer's market, and it was really a great way to spend what was a gorgeous fall day.

So, met with an equally gorgeous pseudo-spring day (you take'em when you can get'em around here), we headed over to the Nature Center for their annual Tap the Sap Maple Syrup Festival that took place this past weekend.

Well, besides being just a nice excuse to get out of the house, commune with nature, and enjoy the weather, I am also pleased to say that I actually learned quite a bit about maple syrup (and tasted some as well).

I may be revealing my ignorance here, but did you know that the sap that is tapped from the Maple trees is clear when it comes out? I didn't. I thought it was brown, sticky, and thick, like syrup. But it's completely clear and resembles water, both in appearance and taste.

In order to transform it into the familiar breakfast stand-by, the Maple sap is then boiled down--reduced by a factor of 40--so that the natural sugars caramelize and the liquid thickens. At the festival, they do this over an open hardwood fire, so the syrup also takes on a good amount of smokiness. The resulting stuff, which they bottled and were selling, is a revelation; dark brown to the point of being almost black, yet thinner than you'd expect. The flavor is wonderfully sweet, mapley, but also woodsy and smoky, with lots of wonderful undertones and interesting notes.

We ran into a volunteer who explained the process to us while we were out in the woods checking out the scene. Most of the action happens in February, but "you guys are too big a bunch of sissies to brave the weather in February," he explained, so they wait until mid-to-late March to hold the festival. Most of the sap is already harvested by then, but there's still enough flowing for yokels like me to get the idea.

The trees are just tapped with little metal spigots, and when the sap moves back up through the root system up into the tree (after the winter), some of it flows out of the spigot and into plastic jugs that hang on the trees to catch the stuff. When the jugs get full, the staff dumps the sap into plastic buckets along the trail. I opened one up and checked it out, and it was full of bugs and all sorts of stuff. They do, of course, filter it before boiling it for a day or two. Who knows...maybe that's where all the "subtle undertones" and "interesting notes" come from.

The whole thing was eye-opening, to say the least. I consider myself somewhat of an expert on foodstuffs, how they're procured and subsequently transformed for the consumer. Yet I can't believe how clueless I was about Maple syrup, especially considering how close I live to major producer states like Wisconsin and Michigan. I am humbled. The world of food and food production is so vast; there's always more to learn.

So we romped around in the woods, the kids got to climb on stuff, see a few birds, and--most important of all--escape from the concrete and noise of the city and near 'burbs. We found the same storyteller that Henry liked so much last time and listened to him for awhile. Then we headed into the Nature Center building for a bathroom break, and ran smack into a pretty damn good bluegrass band playing to a room full of people. They were called The Giving Tree Band and they were just fabulous, with two guitars, an upright bass, a banjo and a fiddle. What a great, joyously raucous, jingly-jangly way to cap a day at the Nature Center.

The volunteer we talked to spoke glowingly about their Winter Solstice Festival, which is held at night, with great bonfires, candles everywhere in the woods, and some sort of live wolf show, or something, so we're planning on making it over there for that as well. And I was honestly so inspired by the place, how nicely it's run, and what a great resource this sort of thing is for city-dwellers, that I'm considering volunteering.

Their festivals are a great draw, and a good excuse to go check the place out, but I urge everyone reading to just get over there and walk around the next time you've got some time on a sunny day. You can, in a hour's walk, move through natural woodlands, savannahs, wetlands, and prairie. And, in a short amount of time, you can absorb enough nature to forget, for a while, that you're living amidst the noise, traffic, and pollution of the city. Oh, and it's free.

Do yourself a favor and check it out.

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