The Sweet Life: Maple Syrup Season in Quebec

In the Quebec countryside, the flow of maple syrup anticipates the coming of spring.

maple syrup
Maple Syrup Season in QuebecTodd Coleman

"Are you boiling today?" asks Nathalie Decaigny, on the phone at her home in Auclair, a tiny hamlet in Bas-St-Laurent, Quebec's second-largest maple syrup—producing region. It's the only way to start a conversation during early spring, when the sugaring-off season is drawing to its close. The columns of maple-scented steam rising from the dense forests are a sure sign that neighbors are still busy in their sugar shacks, evaporating the colorless, nearly tasteless sap they've collected over the past several weeks into sweet, amber syrup, some of the finest in the world.

Because the flow of sap is so temperature-dependent—sugar stored in a tree's roots moves into the trunk only when the mercury rises—it makes for a tight bond between neighbors. Everyone is in the same predicament: often tied to the shack until the wee hours, feeding the roaring furnace with splits of maple wood, and boiling furiously to keep up with the flow. Friends trade gossip about the going rate for a barrel of No. 1 grade syrup and fuel themselves with maple-sweetened meals: feves au lard, beans cooked with pork fat drenched in syrup; hand-carved smoky-sweet ham with a maple glaze; sticky walnut-topped maple squares lavished with spoonfuls of cold, thick cream.

To me, a first-time visitor to this outlying part of Quebec, the whole scene is comfortingly familiar. Like many Canadians, I grew up with a family tradition of sugaring. In my grandfather's day, we had a horse to pull the sap barrels to our sugar shack on the south shore of Lake Simcoe in southern Ontario; later, at my uncle's nearby farm, I was the draft horse, staggering across the snowy field with buckets of sap to be poured into the jury-rigged evaporator. I'd stand next to the pot, breathing the clouds of steam, waiting for my first taste of the boiled sap—smoky, sweet, and caramel. My cousins kept several grades in the freezer (where it lasts longer); they reserved a bottle of the darkest stuff we had for summer desserts. We'd eat the deliciously intense No. 2 grade syrup (see "Making the Grade") over vanilla or walnut ice cream at the family cottage. I now write my children's initials in maple syrup as I pour it over thick natural yogurt, just as my mother once did for me.

I'm not alone in my love for it. Here in Canada, maple syrup is the culinary equivalent of hockey—a national obsession (our flag bears a maple leaf, after all). How it improves pancakes, coffee, doughnuts, beans, and ham is one of the few subjects on which all Canadians can agree. I often add a little to my salad dressings to balance the acid, and a bit of syrup in a stir-fry of ginger and bok choy tastes just right. My favorite local bacon is cured in it, as are innumerable other proteins, like the gently smoked salmon that chef Mark McEwan has been making for the past 14 years at North 44 restaurant in Toronto. Though we continue to eat an awful lot of syrup, today, as more of Canada's population migrates to cities, gathering in a sugar shack has become something of a nostalgic adventure; chartered buses take urbanites like me, whose family shacks are long gone, out to the countryside during sugaring season for old-fashioned sugar shack meals of pork and beans, crepes, and eggs. Even chefs like Montreal's Martin Picard, of the restaurant Au Pied de Cochon, have made a cause out of reviving the cabane a sucre. Yet in pockets of rural Canada, sugaring is very much a living tradition. Last March, drawn to the promise of reliving the sweet early springs of my childhood and tired of the slush-brown city streets of Toronto in late winter, I decided to make a sojourn. Following the advice of a syrup-obsessed friend in Montreal, I traveled to remote Auclair, about 200 miles northeast of Quebec City, to spend some time making and eating maple syrup with Nathalie Decaigny and her husband, Vallier Robert. Quebec produces close to 75 percent of the world's supply of maple syrup, which is used in abundance in Quebecois cuisine. Tarte au sucre d'erable, a fudgy pie made with cream, milk, and syrup, is ubiquitous throughout the province. (Nathalie Decaigny serves hers with whipped cream sweetened with maple syrup and frozen blackcurrants that she picks from her garden in the summer).

It's just as common in savory dishes: fresh tomatoes slow-roasted until jammy with maple syrup and olive oil, or mushroom and wild rice soup with an added dose of syrup for unexpected depth. At Panache restaurant in Quebec City, they use it to lacquer local duck as it spit-roasts to moist, crackling perfection. Indeed, maple syrup knows no boundaries: cook it down a little and it makes the ideal sauce for the simple cake known as pouding chomeur (poor man's pudding), but it's equally welcome sweetening local foie gras that's been raised on the plains near the Quebec—Vermont border. And when I'm really thirsty and craving something slightly sweet, I pour a spoonful into the bottom of a glass and top it with soda water. It's like a mapley ginger ale only better. I wanted to understand what makes it so superlative and what accounts for its versatility—how, I wondered, can it sometimes taste like vanilla and at other times of smoke?

As I soon found out, the quality of Quebec's syrup has something to do with its long-held pedigree. Sixteenth-century French explorers learned the art of sugaring off—the term for boiling maple sap into syrup—from the Malecite Indians who lived along the St. Lawrence River in southeastern Quebec. To collect sap from the black, red, and sugar maple trees that thrive in this cold climate, natives would make a cut into a tree with a tomahawk in late winter. As daytime temperatures rose above freezing, sugar stores in the tree's roots would move through the trunk to nourish the tree for spring buds. At night, the trunk constricts in the freezing weather and sucks the water and sugar upward. During the day, when temperatures become warmer, pressure in the trunk pushes the sap down through the trunk, and the Indians collected it in birch-bark buckets. They would then freeze the sap or drop in hot rocks to remove excess water, leaving the sugary syrup behind. Though the tools have changed over the centuries, the basic methods have remained the same, as has the math: 40 gallons of sap still boil down to just one gallon of syrup. That simple equation—measured against the prohibitive cost of cane sugar—amounted to round-the-clock seasonal work for Quebec's habitants in the 1800s. For four or five weeks these tenant farmers would boil sap far into the night to keep up with the copious flow. Eventually, families took to building cabanes a sucre, small shacks on the edge of their maple forests outfitted with chimneys and stoves and, later on, evaporators made of English tin and equipped with long rectangular pans that could simmer gallons of syrup at a time.

Vallier Robert learned the art of sugaring off from his father, Charles-Aime. An Auclair legend, Charles-Aime had come up with a plan in the 1970s to save his dying logging community: he turned a local pastime into a money-making enterprise, forming a cooperative to share equipment costs and modernizing the sugaring-off process there. Today, at Domaine Acer, his son and daughter-in-law tend 11,500 taps that produce some of the tastiest syrup I've ever drizzled over pancakes, as well as whipped maple butter, maple jellies, and smooth maple dessert wine. They also run a small museum next to their house, which chronicles the history and science of maple production. Even so, Vallier is not so much interested in tradition as he is in what he calls the "transformation"—creating something singular, and delicious, from sap. In Auclair, the winters are long and cold enough that a mile-and-a-half-long ice bridge is built across the frozen Temiscouata Lake in January and February. Like most villagers, Vallier, Nathalie, and their four young children—Jeanne, Romane, Henri, and Zelia—spend their days cross-country skiing through leafless maple forests, tobogganing down hillsides, and waiting for sugaring season to start. Then one day, usually in early March, the sun begins to burn a little brighter. The snow that blankets the landscape begins to soften at the edges. Runoff carves a trickling path down the slopes. Vallier notices the smell of sweetness in the new spring air, a sure sign that the sap will soon run.

Vallier, as well as his brother, Janel, who tends to 3,500 taps of his own, are called acericulteurs, a word that might translate as "maplers." In Quebec, a mapler doesn't just make syrup; he also takes care of the forest, thinning out the trees so the remaining maples get sufficient sun to grow big and hardy enough to tap. The Roberts must think in decades, if not centuries: they let trees grow for 30 or 40 years before tapping them. A responsible family of acericulteurs could keep tapping those trees until they reach about 200 years—their natural lifespan. "What I exploit now is what my ancestors left me," says Janel.

Like most acericulteurs, Vallier drills new holes in his trees every winter (with time, the old holes grow over), fitting them with metal spouts attached to plastic tubing, which laces and loops along the forest floor. Through these veins, the sap runs toward one of the pumping stations, a tiny shack with a small reservoir where the liquid collects. When the reservoir is full, the sap is flushed out into thicker tubes that carry it downhill, eventually pooling in one of three 10,000-liter stainless-steel tanks inside Vallier's sugar shack.

Early one morning, I join Nathalie in the shack, where the watery sap is collecting. She dips a tin cup into the clear fluid and hands it to me for a taste. I can detect only the faintest hint of sweetness. By law, Canadian maple syrup must be 66 percent sugar. But the sap is around 97 percent water and only about 2 percent sugar. (The remainder consists of minerals and amino acids, which will also contribute to the syrup's flavor.) The less sugar there is in the sap, the more boiling it requires. Yet it's not as simple as it sounds. The sugar content varies from day to day, peaking during the middle of the season. Even sap taken from the same forest tastes markedly different from one day to the next. Vallier keeps dozens of test tube samples throughout the season that together form an edible weather history of Auclair. "Oh yes," says Nathalie, pointing to a darkish test tube. "That was a really hot day, right before Easter."

Dressed in a white lab coat and a baseball cap, Vallier pours me a taste of syrup boiled from the first sap of early March, when the trees are still deep in snow. The pale-straw liquid tastes delicate and faintly woodsy. Vallier and Nathalie prefer the midseason syrup, which to me tastes like the pure essence of maple, with undertones of butter and cream. By the end of the season, when the trees are ready to bud, the syrup turns much deeper in color. The flavor is nuttier, more chocolatey and complex, even slightly bitter.

Once the first sap has been tapped and the first syrup boiled, it's time for celebration—something this luxuriously flavored must be eaten right away—so even the humblest sugar shack has some kind of makeshift kitchen. An old wood stove, a counter with a coffee maker and an electric burner, a table for impromptu meals with family and friends. Locals without a shack of their own gather at those of neighbors and friends, drinking beer and syrup-sweetened coffee. The townspeople from the other side of Lake Temiscouata drive to St-Juste-du-Lac to enjoy lunch at a shack owned by Gilles and Nicole Chouinard. Everybody around Auclair knows the Chouinards; Gilles's family has been operating the shack for 54 years. "C'est chaleureux," says Janel Robert. The phrase has no direct translation into English. What Janel means is that the shack is warm—warmed by the heat of the evaporator but also by the warmth of the people who've gathered there.

The menu at the Chouinards' is pure habitant, cooked by family and neighbors dressed in denim and floral aprons. Plates arrive piled high with ham, beans, potatoes, and a salty heap of oreilles de christ—fried pork rinds. Eggs poach in a deep vat of syrup. Crepes are dusted with maple sugar and drizzled with more syrup. Coffee percolates in tin pots on the wooden stove; the aroma mixes deliciously with the sweet steam from the evaporator while the Chouinards fry fluffy pancakes in lard and simmer sweet grand-pere dumplings, airy nuggets of batter that will be bathed in syrup. Many of the guests have been visiting the Chouinards for decades, and as they pour the fresh syrup out of old milk cans and pass plates of pickles around the long communal table, the gathering feels like a reunion.

Afterward, everyone heads outside for one final sweet: tire. Gilles boils maple syrup to the soft candy stage to create sticky maple taffy, the same way he's been doing it year after year; one of his sons pours three stripes of the molten syrup onto a long tray of fresh snow. Chaos ensues. Armed with short wooden sticks, young and old jostle for position at the trough, rolling up the taffy before it hardens into a lollipop. Everyone jokes with a familial ease, lingering long after the last tire is rolled, while children clamber up the shrinking snowbanks and hide behind the maple trees. It's impossible not to smile. Nothing matches the high spirits of a well-fed group of northerners, standing together and soaking in the warm spring sun.