Its that time of the year. Its time to go to La Cabane à Sucre. If there are maple trees that grow where you live threre is a good chance that you know what I'm talking about. During springtime maple trees leak a wonderful sweet sap that is boiled and then becomes maple syrup. Mmmmm!
Have you ever had maple syrup before? REAL maple syrup, not the Mrs. Butterworth, Aunt Jemima variety of supermarket syrups that pretend to approximate the good stuff. The subtle taste of real maple syrup beats any other sugary concoction you can put on a stack of waffles, pancakes or french toast. And the province of Quebec is the place to go for a veritable maple experience.
Although the state of Vermont and provinces of Ontario and New Brunswick churn out a fair deal of maple syrup, Quebec pumps out 75% of the world’s supply. And as any blind taste test will tell you, La Belle Province does it right. From small, family-run establishments to huge, assembly-line, factory-like productions, cabanes a sucre or sugar shacks, tap into the pure essence of maple trees all over the province.
What began as a collection of humble, subsistence operations has become a vital cog in Quebec’s massive tourism industry. Every schoolchild from Montreal to Quebec City visits a sugar shack as part of a class trip every other spring. The season is a busy one for maple mavens, not only because of the inherent harvest – as the snow and ice melts, tin buckets or plastic pipes fitted to maples trees fill up with sap, of which it takes 40 litres to produce 1 litre of delicious syrup – but also because of the tsunami-like tide of visitors. There is no ritual in Quebec quite so genuine and endemic as the sugar shack experience and maple syrup production.
Although large-scale operations exist in close proximity to Montreal and make all the headlines in tourist brochures, be forewarned: most locals consider them watered-down, fast-food, big-box versions of the real deal sugar shack experience. You can have a great time at these virtual maple-marts, especially if you have a huge brood of children in tow and want a place not too far from downtown Montreal – most have mini-zoos,
horse-drawn sleigh-rides, entertainment and more – but if you’re a true foodie and off-the-beaten-path kind of person, you’ll be disappointed by the springtime crowds. Obviously, the more remote the sugar shack is,the more genuine it’s likely to be. There are still scores of idyllic, snow-covered sugar shack operations hidden deep in forested regions of Quebec. While it’s certainly not practical for everyone to trek out to the wilderness in search of maple-paradise, more and more international tourists have been game in recent years to explore parts way outside of Montreal and Quebec City
So what makes a good cabane a sucre? For most, it’s all about the food and ambiance. Small, authentic sugar shacks that prepare the Quebec comfort food of old, in cozy, near-backwoods environs. To most Quebecois, these are the hallmarks of cabane a sucre perfection.
Maple syrup is just the tip of the sugar shack iceberg. While the amber ambrosia is most pure in syrup form, it serves as a vital ingredient in Quebecois cuisine as well. Real sugar shack fare is hearty and originates back to a time when winter survival was a serious obstacle. As such, sustenance, especially for rural folk, had to provide rich nourishment.
Thus, in order for a cabane a sucre to qualify as authentic today, it must serve copious amounts of: thick pea soup, homemade baked beans, meat pies or tourtieres, maple-cured ham, oreilles de crisse (fried strips of salt pork fat), omelettes, Quebec beers and wine and maple-sweetened desserts like sugar pie, crepes and “grands-peres” (yeast dumplings or doughnuts poached in maple syrup).
The sumptuous feast must invariably end outdoors with traditional maple taffy, where hot, super-concentrated syrup is poured on a bed of fresh snow and scooped up with wooden sticks. Hopefully you have room left to enjoy this quintessential Quebecois treat, known simply as tire. It’s absolutely critical to the sugar shack experience. And by all means, schedule a dentist appointment soon thereafter.
Here is a collection of pictures of "cabane à sucre". Some are pictures of the one I went to last week-end. It's called Cabane à sucre de la Montagne. Its just 20 minutes from my house. I've also included some historical paintings depicting sugar shacks in 18 and 19th century. Enjoy!
This is the owner of La Cabane à Sucre de la Montagne. This where I went. It sits at the top of a small mountain. I dont mind walking up knowing I will need all the exercise in the world to burn up calories I am about to ingest.
Turn of the century cabane à sucre.
Warning: ingesting large amounts of sugar may give you the need to climb up a roof...