The maple tree tapping season will start in the next few months in Canada and some of the northeastern regions of the United States. The season begins when the weather warms up and the sap on the trees starts to thaw and flow. Small holes are drilled into the trees, a spout is inserted and the sap collected. About the consistency of water, the sap is boiled in large vats and reduced to a syrup. It takes about 40 litres of sap to make one litre of syrup - hence the high price. The syrup is reduced even further to make maple sugar. Maple syrup is 'graded' according to its colour, consistency and flavour. The lightest grades (AA or A in the US, #1 extra light in Canada) are the most expensive, but many people consider the flavour insipid and prefer the darker, richer-tasting grades. When buying maple syrup, check the label to see it's not 'maple flavoured', which means it contains little of the real substance. Other than pouring it over the usual pancakes, maple syrup can be used to glaze nuts. Toss pecans or walnuts with maple syrup then spread them on a lightly oiled baking sheet. Toast the nuts at 180 degrees Celsius until the syrup is slightly sticky. To make maple creme brulee, use an equal weight of syrup as a substitute for sugar and reduce the milk or cream slightly. Bake the custard in a water bath and, when cool, spread sieved maple sugar over the top and caramelise with a propane or butane torch. Apple crumble is delicious when the sliced fruit is tossed with maple syrup, grated orange or lemon zest and a little flour to thicken the juices. Make the crumble topping with maple sugar (it's sweeter than regular sugar, so use less), unsalted butter, flour and chopped walnuts then bake until the topping is brown and the juices from the apples start to bubble through the crust. Maple syrup can also be used in savoury dishes. To glaze meats, mix maple syrup with soy sauce, cayenne pepper or fresh chillies, finely chopped ginger and garlic, a little mustard and lots of black pepper. Rub the mixture into the meat and bake or grill. Baste frequently with the marinade until about 30 minutes before the meat is done, then finish cooking. To make a hearty winter side dish, drizzle maple syrup over chunks of peeled winter squash or sweet potatoes and bake until tender.