March may as well be renamed Maple in Québec. In the province that produces three-quarters of the world’s maple syrup, it’s literally flavour of the month when the harvest of maple sap begins. It’s a sign that spring is here, and it’s time to eat even more maple goodness than usual, from the traditional meals at maple farms, to seasonal treats, including maple beer and latte.
In Australia I had a choice of two brands of maple syrup in nearly identical bottles. It’s fairly pricey there, so used sparingly, and limited to but a few dishes (particularly pancakes), or entirely absent no thanks to maple-flavoured syrup – urgh! Now I live in the sweet spot of the maple universe: it’s way cheaper; there are as many ‘brands’ as there are maple farms (so thousands); it’s available in different grades, from golden/delicate to dark/strong; it’s a pleasure not limited to syrup form; and, especially at this time of year, it’s everywhere – even on the Canadian flag!
Why is Québec synonymous with maple syrup? The best kind of trees for producing it are sugar, red and black maples, and the province has a lot of them (these trees also produce spectacular autumn colour, making Québec one of the prettiest places to be in September and October). They grow in surrounding areas too (particularly in Vermont, the centre of US maple-syrup production) but not to the same extent. Cold temperatures are also essential, as it prompts the trees to store starch, which becomes watery sap when temperatures rise above freezing. That’s why the harvest is during March, and sometimes April.
Indigenous peoples recognised this natural phenomenon centuries ago. They tapped maple trees for their sap, then separated the sugars from the water content to create syrup, either by leaving sap overnight and removing the layer of ice that formed, or putting hot rocks in it, causing the water to evaporate. I saw the latter method demonstrated in Gatineau last year: it looked like very tedious work, having to heat the rocks up over and over, especially when you consider it takes 20-50 litres of sap to make one litre of syrup.
Europeans got in on the act, boiling sap in metal vessels within specially built structures called sugar shacks, or cabanes à sucre – more on those names later. Over the centuries, the process became quicker and easier with improved technology, such as running plastic tubing from the trees to the shack, rather than gathering sap in buckets hooked onto trunks. It’s still a fairly hands-on, small-scale kind of agriculture, however: the 25 million litres of maple syrup produced in Québec annually is the work of several thousand family farms.
Each is a member of the Fédération des producteurs acéricoles du Québec. This organisation has been called the OPEC of the maple syrup world, because it doesn’t just manage the marketing of maple products, it also regulates prices, imposes production quotas, and maintains the International Strategic Reserve of syrup. It sounds over the top, but maple syrup is called liquid gold for good reason; consider the thieves who stole $30 million worth of syrup from one of the FPAQ’s warehouses in 2012.
Producers sometimes grumble that the FPAQ control production and prices too tightly, but they can make some coin without interference during spring if they have somewhere to feed the masses. These days, sugar shacks and cabanes à sucre (depending on whether you speak English or French ) are where you go during March and April for a huge meal that will inevitably leave you feeling slightly comatose. Think endless ham, pork rinds, sausages, baked beans, soup, omelette, potatoes, bread, jars of pickled vegetables, desserts such as crepes and sugar pie (aka maple pie), and of course endless maple syrup.
I’ve written about my cabane à sucre experiences here and here, but can now also highly recommend Auberge Handfield. From the carpark, visitors are ferried to the farm’s big but charming dining barns in a wagon drawn by horses or a tractor – a great way to get in the mood for rustic pleasures. The food is great, especially for people who have dietary requirements, as with some notice they offer vegetarian, gluten-free and pork-free menus (this is rare!).
I was at Auberge Handfield on a busy Saturday recently, and enjoyed the music of a live accordion player while stuffing my face. There are also free horse-drawn wagon rides around the property (probably sleigh rides early in the season) and maple taffy, or tire d’érable : hot syrup is poured onto a little snow-covered table, forming gooey blobs that you scoop up with a popsicle stick – yummy!
Maple season is not all rustic cabins and horse-drawn wagons though. Some Montreal restaurants do maple-themed seasonal meals, and urban sugar shacks pop up around town, though generally they’re not about meals but maple products and taffy on snow. I know spring is not far away when the quaint pop-up sugar shack appears outside my local Métro station, Mont-Royal, selling syrup in pretty bottles (for tourists) and cans (standard packaging in Québec), as well as maple sugar, candy, cookies and spread.
These are very widely available products, including at supermarkets, and throughout the year too, but you can also find the likes of maple salad dressing, ice-cream, tea and ‘pearls’ (a molecular gastronomy garnish) at gourmet food stores such as maple specialists Délices Érables in Old Montreal (the tourist zone where every souvenir store is well supplied with maple-leaf-shaped bottles of syrup).
And just as autumn is pumpkin-spice season, early spring is when some everyday foods and drinks get mapled, so Première Moisson bakeries offer maple croissants, Second Cup do maple coffee, and local craft brewer McAuslan delivers a personal favourite: the St-Ambroise maple ale. Québec: where maple dreams come true!