Syrup is big business. So big that two years ago it was the object of a major heist — an $18 million heist of six million gallons — from a Canadian syrup cartel. The Coen Brothers are making a movie about it. If this all sounds a little too fantastical to be true, well, the truth is often stranger than fiction.
Maybe you’ve never given syrup much thought. I hadn’t, until my friend and I visited Montreal. Nearly 80 percent of the world’s maple syrup comes from Quebec. The sap is harvested from trees during a short window of time in the spring — the “sugaring off” season, which, as luck would have it, coincided with our trip. For the Québécois, sugaring off is a rite of spring, much the way many of us in the northeastern U.S. look forward to apple picking as a sign that autumn is here.
We decided to spend a cold April day visiting a Québécois cabane à sucre, or sugar shack. And, no, I’m not talking about that quirky earworm of a song “Sugar Shack” by Jimmy Glimmer and the Fireballs, which I will not link to here for fear of a blog mutiny. I’m talking about an honest-to-goodness cabin in the woods dedicated to turning sap into syrup.
When the nights are still chilly, but the days are warm, little buckets like these pop up all around Quebec.
Some days the buckets have to be emptied two or three times. I imagine burly, bearded men wearing plaid flannel shirts trudging through the woods to collect the buckets one by one, but now many farmers collect the sap via a vast network of plastic hoses that wind their way through the trees.
The sap is then brought into the sugar shack, where it is poured into large vats and boiled into thick amber goodness. What surprised me most was that the sap is clear. This is a bit embarrassing to admit, but I thought it was a brownish color. That color is only achieved after the sap is boiled and the sugar caramelizes. It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.
There is one reason to go to a sugar shack — the food. The feasts that are served at sugar shacks range from down home to avant-garde. We went the down home route — checkered tablecloths, family-style platters, wood-burning fireplace and always the jug of syrup on the table. We learned quickly that maple syrup goes with just about anything, but my favorite item on the menu was the tarte au sucre. Think of a pecan pie without the pecans. It was as if the cook said, “Let’s get rid of the only thing in this pie that could be classified as nutritious.”
The best part of the day? The tire d’érable or “sugar on snow.” The sap is boiled to a higher temperature, past the point of syrup, until it becomes thick like taffy. While it’s still nearly boiling, it’s poured onto the “snow” (really ice shavings) in delightful little rows.
Using a popsicle stick, you roll one row over and over until it’s a little sticky ball. Then you lick it like a lollipop. Piece of advice from personal experience: Don’t bite it unless you don’t mind losing a filling.
Despite my extensive taste testing, I’m no connoisseur, but I came away from my sugar shack experience with an appreciation for the real syrupy deal. It puts the stuff in the grocery store that comes in the bottle shaped like a certain aunt to shame.
Before the bud swells, before the grass springs, before the plough is started, comes the sugar harvest. It is sequel of the bitter frost; a sap run is the sweet goodbye of winter.
~ John Burroughs (1837 – 1921)
What are some of your rites of spring?
Have a great weekend, everyone!