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It has been about five years since the first birch trees were tapped in Alaska to produce birch syrup to sell commercially. Now, a group of Alaskans is marketing the syrup.

In 1990, Marlene Cameron of Wasilla, Alaska, then a professor at the University of Alaska at Anchorage, became intrigued with local lore about how sourdoughs (old-time Alaska residents) and Indians would collect birch sap as it rose in the spring and boil it down to make a syrup. She decided to try her hand at it by tapping her own trees.Although she had no prototype to work from, since birch syrup had never been made commercially, Cameron was not discouraged when her first batch resembled crude oil. She applied to the Alaska Science & Technology Foundation, which finances ecological research and industry in the state, for a grant and technical support, which she received.

She then discovered others across the state who were working toward selling the syrup. They formed the Alaska Birch Sugar-makers' Association to share information and production techniques, and to pool their marketing resources.

Unlike maple sap, which is made up of 2 to 5 percent sugar, birch sap has a sugar content ranging from .5 to 1.5 percent. So, while it only takes 40 gallons of maple sap to make one gallon of syrup, it takes about 100 gallons of birch sap for each gallon of birch syrup. Birch sap must be boiled longer to get the right consistency and concentration of syrup. The result is a product with an amber color and caramel-like flavor that works as well in a balsamic vinaigrette as it does on waffles and pancakes.

Jack Amon, part owner and chef of the Marx Brothers Cafe in Anchorage, has used the syrup in a glaze for roast duck and for a spinach salad with pears, pecans and gorgonzola. But his favorite dish is a birch-syrup butter-pecan ice cream over a warm wild berry crisp. "I originally created the ice cream using a high-grade maple syrup, but I couldn't get enough flavor without disrupting the sugar balance," he said. "After trying pure maple extract, I discovered pure birch syrup and switched right away.

"The product is very strong and has such a flavor punch it almost works like an extract."

Birch syrup, which is available in retail stores throughout Alaska and in Seattle, can also be ordered by mail from the Alaska Birch Sugarmakers' Association, P.O. Box 243912, Anchorage, AK 99524-3912; phone 1-800-962-4724 (10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Eastern Standard Time). A half-pint of pure syrup is $10 and a half-pint of breakfast syrup (a mixture of pure syrup and fructose) is about $6.