Maple Syrup Season!
Scratch the surface of any eastern Canadian and you’ll get a maple story. Early March was the time in which my grandfather, Albert Ovens, would have what he would call his annual “feed”, a fruit nappie filled with first run syrup. It was pure gold and he spooned it onto thick slices of buttered homemade white bread to soak up the last drops. One of my most treasured heirlooms is a coverlet, crocheted by my paternal grandmother, Jessie Rogers, while she sat beside the sugar kettle waiting for the sap to boil down.
Wherever you live in eastern Canada, spring really begins when narrow streams of smoke spiral from the forests. It’s the unmistakable signal, as it has been for centuries, that sugaring-off time has begun. It was the only sweetener for the early settlers.
The tradition of collecting maple sap and boiling it down –it takes 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup — spans eastern Canada. But nowhere is it better understood and more embedded in the culture than in Quebec, which produces 77% of the entire world supply, over 32,000 metric tons.
The first nations taught the early French in both Nova Scotia and in Quebec how to use the sap. Maple sugar-making was an important social activity for the indigenous peoples. Families and small groups gathered in temporary camps in early March, staying for about a month in order to make their yearly supply. Diagonal cuts were made in the base of the sugar maple trees (Acer saccharum) with an axe and the sap that flowed out was gathered in shallow containers. Originally the syrup was boiled by plunging hot stones into the sap in large wooden troughs.
The settlers quickly adapted this ancient knowledge with more “modern” methods, tapping the trees with metal spigots and collecting the sap in pails, hard work usually done on snowshoes when the snow is deep. Rather than wooden troughs, they had large metal cauldrons.
In the maple forests les cabanes were the day long quarters for those harvesting the sap. To feed and warm themselves, they had wood stoves. There, with cast iron frying pans, and enormous appetites, the traditional foods of les cabanes à sucre evolved. Fèves au lard (pork and beans) simmered on the stove top, liberally sweetened with maple syrup; potatoes were fire-roasted and eggs were poached in syrup. There were thin crêpes made from sarrazin (buckwheat flour); ham and bacon, both meats which needed little refrigeration, were fried and omelettes were cooked to go with them. Syrup was poured over them all. And it wasn’t just syrup they made…they boiled down sugar, fermented partially boiled sap into maple vinegar and even made maple wine.
Today, the tradition continues. It’s a double celebration — spring has sprung and Lent is over. From Easter on, Quebecers flock to the rural countryside to visit their favourite cabane à sucre, one of over 400 near all the major urban centres. The translation of the words to “sugar shacks” hardly does them justice. They are not shacks. They are warm wooden buildings that are filled with grand aromas and the foods of old Québec…all of course, ready to be doused with the season’s first, nearly transparent syrup. Tourtière has been added to the list as have a myriad of good pickles….ketchup rouge, which in English might be called chow chow or chili sauce; pickled beets and sometimes green tomato pickles. The meal is accompanied not only by entertainment but also by an unbelievably potent drink called cariboo — red wine spiked with white alcohol. After the meal, it’s time for le tire or the taffy pull. Syrup is boiled to the candy stage and poured upon the snow.
As homespun as maple syrup may be, it remains as one of Canada’s iconic crops and is used in everything from tarts to curing salmon to the Ultimate Maple Syrup Pie.
Excerpted from Anita Stewart’s Flavours of Canada, A Celebration of the Finest Regional Foods (Raincoast Books, 2000/2006)