Height of Flavor

Three maple syrups from Quebec that tower above the rest.

An estimated 90 percent of Americans have never tasted real maple syrup; most breakfast syrup consumed in this country is of the high-fructose corn variety dressed up with caramel color to make it look like the real stuff. How baffling that must be to our neighbors in Quebec, where maple syrup is sacrosanct. They not only douse pancakes with it; they poach eggs in it, glaze pork with it, and use it in classic dishes like pouding chomeur, a rustic pudding cake, confident that their sirop d'erable is the best in the world. They may well be right: some Quebec-made syrups I tried recently, particularly those from a company called Mopure, were so distinctive and nuanced that they made me reconsider what I thought I knew about maple flavor.

The taste of maple syrup has long been understood to be a matter of timing. Sugaring, the process of tapping sugar maples and boiling their sap to make syrup, runs for six weeks in Quebec, beginning in March. As the season progresses, the syrup gets darker and more intensely flavored, in large part because of microorganisms that develop in the sap as the weather grows warmer. Different grades—called No. 1 (the lightest), No. 2, and No. 3 (the darkest) in Canada—correspond to different points in the season; the No. 1 grade, the kind typically available to consumers, is further divided into Extra Light, Light, and Medium.

In any sugar maple tree, sap flow is governed by a cycle of warm days, which cause the sap to move toward the base of the tree, where the tap is inserted, and freezing-cold nights, which help the tree draw moisture up from the soil. Mopure's trees grow in the mountains, where spring comes on slowly, extending that freeze-thaw cycle and allowing for a greater flow of minerals and other nutrients through the tree. Scientists are only beginning to work out how such characteristics of soil and climate ultimately express themselves in a maple syrup. But I can happily confirm that the delicious syrups that the company makes—the clean, nectarlike Extra Light; the Light, with its pure, archetypal maple flavor; and the deeper, woodsier-tasting Medium—are unlike those produced anywhere else. Mopure's syrups cost $17 (plus shipping) for a 500-ml bottle or $45 (plus shipping) for a set of three 250-ml bottles in Extra Light, Light, and Medium. To order, call 403/939-4042 or visit www.rarified.ca.