For those of us still in the throes of cold snowy weather, here are four words that herald one of Canadian winter’s late marvels (and a sure sign that spring is around the corner):
The sap is running!
Inside maple trees (Sugar, Red and Black Maples anyway!) across much of Canada and the northeastern U.S., starch stored in the tree and roots before winter is right now being converted into sugar and rising in the sap of the tree. When these trees are tapped, the exuded sap is collected and boiled and, voila: Maple Syrup – the most delectable product the world has ever known, in my humble opinion.
Quebec produces about three-quarters of the maple syrup in the world, and being a Quebecker I say that with a small degree of pride. On the Canadian side of the border, you’ll also find Sugar Shacks, or Cabane a Sucres as they are lovingly referred to in French, in New Brunswick, Ontario, Nova Scotia, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and PEI.
With modern production, a new sugaring off season doesn’t mean necessarily a greater availability of syrup (it’s there on the store shelves year round and held in reserves in Quebec to control the market, much like is done with crude oil!), but you will get it at a lower price if you look. What the arrival of sugaring off season really means, particularly if you have young kids, is that it’s time to get in the car and head off to a Sugar Shack to eat a fat-heavy meal and celebrate the making of this amazing natural product.
From my experience, Sugar Shacks fall under two categories. First there are the generic, large-scale, almost corporate-seeming restaurants. These are typically clean and efficient operations but they lack much charm or connection with the family-scale origins of this tradition which goes back to First Nations peoples in pre-colonial times of course but was adopted (and adapted) by Europeans in the 1800s.
At these places you get a kind of traditional meal, which usually consists of eggs, bacon, baked beans, fried potatoes and, in Quebec at least, a bit of pea soup and of course “les oreilles de krisse”(delicious, curly, bacon-like strips made from pork cheeks).
Then you head outside to get some maple taffy – syrup poured onto snow. Then you buy syrup and head home.
If you’re interested in the traditions and craft involved in making syrop, the larger operations can be off-putting. Your better bet is to take a bit more time and search out smaller scale shack. What these may lack in modern facilities they make up for in charm and a feeling of authenticity. And you have a better chance of actually learning how the syrup-making process works.
Some of these offer access to fewer than 15 people which makes calling ahead a must.
If you live in Montreal like I do, a great option for these smaller shacks is to head to Calixa-Lavallée less than an hour east of Montreal on the south shore and follow the Chemin des Érablières. There are several great small-scale shacks there!
In major syrup producing provinces organizations exist to help you find a sugar shack and any other info you might need…recipes, how-to info, history, etc.
Here’s where to find them (oh, and have fun!):
New Brunswick http://maple.infor.ca/
Nova Scotia http://www.novascotiamaplesyrup.com/
List of Sugar Shacks across Canada http://www.sugarbush.info/links/canadian-sugarbush/