From Lagom #5

Keeping it Sweet

Maryse St-Amand and Julie-Anne Cassidy delve into a little-known Canadian tradition and meet the men who’ll ensure that Quebec’s historic sugar shacks won’t meet a sticky end.

Words St-Amand Cassidy

Photographs St-Amand Cassidy

Every spring, the sugaring-off season gives people all over the province of Quebec the opportunity to gather in large groups, sit at rustic communal tables, and enjoy traditional comfort foods made with maple syrup. If you didn’t grow up here, chances are you might not be aware of where maple syrup comes from, or what a sugar shack is. Perhaps you know that it comes from maple trees, but — considering the fact that Quebec produces approximately 85% of maple syrup worldwide and that the remaining percentage comes from its neighbouring regions — the whole process of how it gets extracted from the tree and put into those precious little bottles and cans may be somewhat foreign to you. 

Quebec produces approximately 85% of maple syrup worldwide and that the remaining percentage comes from its neighbouring regions.

To us Quebecers, maple syrup is at the root of our cultural identity. Contrary to popular belief, maple syrup doesn’t drip from the tree in its sticky, sweet form. In short, as the snow starts to melt in the spring, there are approximately 12 to 20 days when the temperature is below 0° C (32° F) at night and above 0° C during the day. It’s only during these few days that the production of maple syrup is possible. The farmer (known here as the sucrier) taps the maple trees in order to collect the sap — a slightly sweet, colourless liquid that is boiled in evaporator tanks until it becomes the delicious golden syrup we all love. An average of 40 litres of sap is needed to produce one litre of 100% pure, natural maple syrup.

Native Americans were the first to discover sinzibuckwud — the Algonquin name for maple syrup that translates as ‘drawn from wood’. When the French started colonising the new continent, our ancestors were taught the basics of maple syrup production, which they quickly adopted as part of their own culture. To concentrate the sap, Native Americans either froze it and removed the ice that formed on top, or they plunged hot stones directly into sap-filled buckets in order to evaporate and thicken it. Later on, colonial settlers boiled the sap in large cauldrons suspended from trees. In order to prevent the loss of heat, they built protective wooden shelters, which would eventually become the sugar shacks we know today.

These cabins have been built in a similar manner ever since: wooden planks, squared timber, double- sloped tin roof, a dormer roof for steam evacuation, and a rustic interior. These quaint shacks became the sucrier’s home during the sugar- ing-off season, and made for a perfect setting for family, friends, and neighbours to gather and celebrate with live folk music, dancing, and, of course, a feast.

Considering the poverty level of French Canadians at the time, as well as the lack of fresh ingredients during winter months, these meals were made of inexpensive cuts of meat, braised animal fat, split pea soup, omelettes, meat pies, and baked beans, all made with generous amounts of maple syrup. 

Desserts typically consisted of sugar pies, crêpes, doughnut dough fried in maple syrup, and the famous maple taffy served on snow. These traditional dishes were not for the light- hearted, as they were prepared to provide the necessary energy to hardworking pioneers in our harsh winter climate. Visit any sugar cabin today and you’ll find that the menu remains the same all over Quebec and — just like the pioneers before us — you’ll be seat- ed at large communal tables and share platters with family, friends, and strangers alike.

Since the 1970s, the vast majority of sugar shacks have become commercial enterprises. In order to cater to large amounts of people and increase profit, the collection of sap is now done with polyethylene tubes, or drop lines. This technique assures a larger yield, but sacrifices the charm and authenticity of the old-fashioned methods; no more picturesque buckets, casks, horses, or tractors. Meals are often made off-site and the experience can resemble that of a large cafeteria rather than a cosy, rustic gathering. To have a true, traditional experience, you must visit sucriers such as Pierre Faucher and André Pollender: two men who are part of a minority of maple farmers still running their sugar shacks the old-fashioned way.

In the Montérégie region of Quebec, at the Sucrerie de la Montagne, owner Pierre Faucher provides an authentic experience true to his French Canadian roots. Everything is perfectly and meticulously arranged to make visitors feel as if they are walking into a village from the 19th century. Pierre is a friendly, welcoming, larger-than-life character, as well as a savvy, detail-oriented businessman. You might be tempted to think that this persona is put on for the sake of entertaining his guests, but it doesn’t take long to uncover his true nature: an authentic, hardworking man who has dedicated his whole life to the promotion of our maple syrup around the globe. He has also been cooking for people at his farm decades before it became a trend, back when even the tourism board of Quebec wanted nothing to do with a ‘peasant’ like him.

If you make your way to the Cabane du Pic Bois, in the Eastern Townships, you’ll find Danielle Pollender and her husband André. This fifth generation farmer speaks of his trade with a knowledge and passion that is contagious. 

The taste and quality of his maple syrup is behind every decision he makes at the farm, including the use of traditional equipment. For the past four years, he has been awarded the gold medal by the Commandery of Maple Artisans. His final product is round, oaky, and refined — unlike most syrups on the market.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) divides all maple syrup into three categories: light, amber, and dark. This is explained by the fact that, as the season progresses and the weather warms, the sap contains more minerals, which darken the colour of the syrup to give it a more pronounced and caramelised flavour. The first syrup of the season is considered the highest quality grade: clearer and more pure in taste. However, within these three categories, there are worlds of differences in taste. What you commonly find in stores worldwide is often a blend of different syrups from a multitude of producers, which results in a homogenised taste. Pollender wishes for a more appropriate categorisation to distinguish them by taste rather than colour — a system that would resemble that of wine classification, and one that takes into consideration the region of production, the soil, vintage, and, of course, the craftsmanship and expertise of the maker himself. If this were the case, his maple syrup would certainly become the equivalent of a much celebrated and reputable Grand Cru.

Maple farming is not something you can go to school to learn and, in many cases, it’s a lifestyle more than a lucrative business. Like most sugar shacks, the Sucrerie de la Montagne and the Cabane du Pic Bois are very much family affairs. Pierre’s son Stefan was born into the maple farm life, the same year the sugar shack was purchased, and he now works there full- time alongside his wife. He brings his two daughters as often as possible. The Pollenders’ sons help out as well during high season, and André is proud to say that his grandchildren are already showing much interest in the trade. In both cases, the succession is promising. The passion and the traditions — including cherished recipes — are passed down from generation to generation. As Quebecers, we’re proud to share this cultural heritage, and we have people like the Pollenders and the Fauchers to thank for keeping those traditions alive.

Lagom #5 cover

Read this story in the print edition of Lagom #5 along with features on a cocktail bar at the back of a Mac repair shop in London, Riga’s role as a new destination for foodies, Prague’s blossoming specialty coffee scene, and more.

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