Systems may have streamlined, but maple syrup production remains basically the same for Canadian local food producers.
One of the joys of travelling, for me, is the opportunity I get to have a glimpse of local food and local food production in other countries. And one of the local food products from Canada that I always find room for in my baggage is maple syrup. The selection of maple syrups and maple syrup products available here in Australia is disappointing – and hideously expensive. My first visit to Maple Delights, a dedicated maple syrup products store in Montreal, was a total eye-opener. I had no idea that maple syrup came in a range of colour and flavour grades, depending upon when it was harvested – with the darker, more robust syrup best used for baking or cooking and the lighter grades preferred for table use. Let alone the range of maple sugars, candied and cookies on their shelves. I was in heaven.
The other day I put on a jacket that I hadn’t worn since my last visit to Canada and was thrilled to find a forgotten maple candy in a pocket – a happy discovery which reminded me of a visit to a traditional sugar shack on the Île d’Orléans.
Maple trees can be tapped from about 30-40 years and will produce sap until over 100 years of age. The sap begins to run in the early spring and the average tree will produce 35 to 50 litres per season. Traditionally, maple syrup production consisted of the collection of sap directly from the trees, in buckets, which was then taken to the sugar shack where it was boiled down to a syrup. Production methods have been streamlined somewhat, but are still basically the same. In place of buckets hanging from trees, a connected system of plastic tubing is generally used and, with the assistance of pumps, the sap is piped directly to the sugar shack where it is processed.
Many sugar shacks are open to the public when the syrup is in season and are a popular tourist destination. The local producers offer a full range of their own maple products for sale and often have large dining areas where they will host traditional, casual meals with live folk music.
One of the most delicious ways to enjoy this natural sweet is maple taffy – simply produced by spreading clean snow or shaved ice along long tables (the narrow brown wooden items in the image of the boilers, above), drizzling the maple syrup over it and sticking a popsicle stick into it – believe me, there’s no better way to enjoy it. And if you happen to be visiting Quebec outside of maple syrup season, just head to Maple Delights where they supply this treat all year round!