Spring’s Sweet Harvest

It’s maple-syrup season, and in Quebec that means it’s time for hearty meals enjoyed at rustic sugar shacks.

December 19, 2012

Maple syrup means springtime in Quebec.Quebec’s maple forests are one of the Canadian province’s greatest natural treasures. Maples love it here, thriving in the cold climate on sunny hillsides and in shady forests, foliage blazing orange, red, and yellow every fall. They are majestic trees that germinate freely and grow relatively quickly, reaching heights of up to 100 feet within a few decades.

There are dozens of varieties of maple growing throughout southeastern Canada and the northeastern United States, but it is the sugar maple that is the most beloved, with its gray-brown shaggy bark and smooth-edged notched leaves. The sap of the sugar maple contains almost twice as much sugar as other species, a quality that was recognized by Native Americans long before Europeans arrived on the continent.

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“People here smile when they spot the first cans of syrup at the market. It’s proof that we’ve all survived another winter,” says France Bisson, whose family produces nearly 2,000 gallons of maple syrup every year on their farm in St. Damase, just east of Montreal. “The flavor of maple has real resonance. To us, it tastes of nostalgia and family. Of our childhood, and of the land itself.

She is not exaggerating. After a long, hard winter, nothing signals spring in Quebec like the taste of maple syrup. It is sweet-tooth heaven when the new harvest arrives in early March, or as soon as the weather decides to offer up its magical mix of below-freezing nights and warm days. And it’s also big business: 75 percent of the world’s supply of maple syrup comes from Quebec

But for many here, maple season remains an intimate family affair. In years gone by, rural men would disappear into the woods for weeks on end to collect the metal sap buckets from their sugar-maple trees and stoke the fires in their rickety sugar shacks, drinking caribou de cabane, a potent blend of hot maple reduction and whiskey, while the sap boiled down. On weekends, the whole family would gather at the cabane for a rustic feast

Photography by Albert Elbilia

 

Maple syrup means springtime in Quebec.This tradition has been kept alive in the hundreds of restaurant-style cabanes à sucre scattered throughout the countryside around Montreal and Quebec City. On weekends, city dwellers come, en famille, to pig out at tables laden with pea soup, tourtière, and other gut-busting old favorites. A fiddler is sure to be playing a few lively folk tunes while the children run wild from the sugar rush brought on by too much tire d’erable: maple taffy made by drizzling hot syrup on snow.

Over the past few decades, though, the sugar shack’s allure had begun to fade, taking on the whiff of tourist-trap kitsch. Too often, the scrambled eggs were rubbery and the maple pie came with a factory-made crust.

That’s where chef Martin Picard comes in. On a chilly late afternoon in March, dressed in his trademark lumberjack shirt, Picard is on his tractor clearing the parking lot outside his sugar shack in St. Benoît de Mirabel, half an hour or so northwest of Montreal. An unexpected spring squall has coated the muddy, gray landscape in snow, and soon his Cabane à Sucre Au Pied de Cochon will be jammed. Dozens of revelers will sit at long communal tables indulging in an endless banquet of maple-infused dishes: herring pickled in salt, vinegar, and maple syrup; soufflé-style omelets studded with lobster and topped by mountains of smoked meat brined in maple and spice; puff pastry filled with entire lobes of foie gras. And those are only the starters. The main course? Maple-glazed duck and maple-barbecued pork belly, bien sûr.

Picard is one of Quebec’s top chefs, a renegade with a taste for excess. His Montreal restaurant, Au Pied de Cochon, is a gastronomic landmark. So when he bought the run-down maple shack 5 years ago, he made it his mission to reinvent the cabane à sucre. Reservations are coveted among food lovers. The entire season, which lasts from March through May, is booked solid months before sugaring even begins. His cookbook Au Pied de Cochon Sugar Shack is a bestseller.

“Here in Quebec, maple syrup is part of our genetic code,” says Picard, sitting on a fur-lined stool in his kitchen. “The cabane à sucre is a beloved tradition, one I want to nurture. And I want to inspire other chefs to do so, too.”

Photography by Albert Elbilia

Maple syrup means springtime in Quebec.He has succeeded. Thanks to Picard and a generation of creative young chefs, maple syrup has newfound sex appeal. In Montreal’s trendy Old Port district, for example, visiting chefs take turns running the kitchen at La Cabane, a sleek urban sugar shack where diners forgo the trek to the woods to sip maple mojitos while watching the sun set over the city skyline.

“The references are folkloric, but everything else is urban and sophisticated,” says chef Martin Juneau, describing his menu at La Cabane, which features smoked bison canapés and duck bouillon with cipollini onion.

It is a lot more rustic back in the wood-paneled kitchen at Cabane à Sucre Au Pied de Cochon. Cooks in raccoon-skin hats haul tubs of marinated pork belly and 50-pound sacks of potatoes and cabbage, preparing for the evening service. Martin’s whole family is here, including his wife, Nancy, who manages the dining room, and his Uncle Marc, who is fiddling with a faulty valve in the evaporating room. Picard’s children, Emile and Charlotte, have just come in to warm up by the potbellied stove after building a snowman outside. In the kitchen, pastry chef Gabrielle Rivard-Hiller is filling éclairs with maple cream.

“For generations, we were stuck in our grandmothers’ old recipes for crêpes and maple pie,” Rivard-Hiller says. “Now we are letting ourselves play. We make macarons and nougat and mille-feuilles. We spin maple syrup into cotton candy and sneak it into chocolate-coated marshmallow cookies.”

She pauses before summing up what may be the driving force behind Quebec’s revived sugar shack tradition: “We’re just having fun.”

Photography by Albert Elbilia

how maple syrup is madeFrom Sap to Syrup

  • In fall, maples store starches in their roots and trunks in preparation for winter.
  • In early spring, when temperatures rise during the day but remain below freezing at night, the starches convert into sugar.
  • The sap begins to flow when temperatures rise, creating pressure inside the tree.
  • To release the sap, sugar makers bore tiny holes fitted with taps into the wood.
  • Aided by gravity, the sap flows into reservoirs through networks of plastic tubing.
  • The reservoirs are emptied into stainless-steel evaporators, where the sap is boiled for hours over a hot fire.
  • It takes 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of maple syrup.
  • Maple syrup is more nutrient-dense than its sweetening counterparts honey or sugar, containing potentially beneficial anti-oxidant compounds, as well as significant amounts of manganese and zinc.
     

Try These Maple Syrup Recipes:

Photography by Albert Elbilia