Canadian Syrup

One sweet Sugar Shack in Quebec has a rich history, with sugary tales to tell.

One sweet Sugar Shack in Quebec has a rich history, with sugary tales to tell.

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I thought my friend from the Quebec area, Darren Moss, was exaggerating when he spoke with an almost reverential awe about putting maple syrup onto snow as a child, and gobbling up the “sugar on snow,” as it is known in Canada. His eyes almost took on an amber-colored glow as he talked fondly about what he, like many Canadians, calls the country’s “liquid gold.” Of course, he tipped into his more covetous side when I asked to try some of his private syrup stash on my pancakes. “Not a chance,” he said. “I carried this all the way from Quebec, where I bought it at the famous Millette Sugar Shack … and, if you want some, you’re going to have to go there and get some yourself.”

Actually, he let me try about 3 drops on my by then-cold food. Well, that was just enough to convince me that I had to go visit the Millette family’s business myself. Now, many people would not be that interested in such a place. But, almost every tooth in my mouth is a “sweet tooth” (with the fillings to prove that), and I often go so far as to add a touch of sweetness to many savoury dishes. You know, pineapple or grapes into my chicken salad, honey into a spicy sauce to dress a seared sea bass, and so on. So, of course, maple syrup has long had a sugary and warm place next to my heart…and, my cardiologist, work-out coach and dietician can readily confirm that claim. What could be a sweeter bow to the gods of all things sugary than going to the altar of maple syrup?

Top of the sweet scale

However, if I thought I was into flapjack sweeteners, I was about to be one-upped by an entire nation. One can hardly over-emphasize the revered status that the sugar maple tree and its syrup holds to Canadians. Indeed, you need look no further than the country’s flag, which is emblazoned red with the maple leaf. This is appropriate, especially in the province of Quebec, which produces 75% of the world’s maple syrup. While many of us picture our own early Western ancestors harvesting sap, they were introduced to this tradition by the aboriginal peoples of North America’s northwest region, who had been at it for centuries before the Anglos arrived.

The rituals surrounding this “sugaring-off” tradition celebrated the “Sugar Moon” (the first full moon of Spring, when the sap is at its sweetest, ready for harvest), and culminated with a Maple Dance. Later revisions and additions to the harvesting process by Western newcomers included amassing sap to a central processing point where it was either boiled over an outdoor fire, or inside a shelter, known as a “sugar shack”). I asked a few Quebecoix about Sugar Shack or, as they say it in French, &ldquldquo;La Cabane a Sucre”  and smiles sprouted faster than a bottle of syrup might at a pancake breakfast (of which, as you might imagine, there are many throughout the land).

On the syrup trail

Only a 15-minute drive out of Mont-Tremblant, the estate reflects time-honoured care. I was greeted personally by Monique and Benoit Millette, dressed, as are all staff, in traditional costume; this creates a warm and history-centric setting, and that energy continued through my entire visit. After a slightly tiring trip, it was straight into the dining room for coffee, my hosts insisted. What did I want with my coffee? You guessed it: Piping hot pancakes, with the most glorious amber maple syrup that has ever passed these jaded taste buds. I could literally smell the freshness of the maple tree as I wolfed down my cakes, which were practically floating in a sea of syrup – a “Hail Darren!” almost escaped my lips.

Benoit detailed the storied past of the family, which has been in the maple syrup business since 1877, when Odile Millette  first tapped trees for family needs. Son Odilon maintained the tradition, later selling to Ge´rard, who continued with wife Jacquelin, and in 1957 they established a simple sugar house, in which they served family recipes handed down through generations of Quebecoix. The present menu reflects this early fare, and it is as hardy and robust as the folks who clearly love the place, the heritage and the timeless work of gathering nature’s best, and now sharing it with others.

I was in one of the smaller and more quaint reception halls, but larger ones can occupy up to 300 guests. The entire place is a pean to the rich history of maple syrup, including exhibits from the early maple-tapping days, which are continued to this day by the Millette family and their workers, including collecting the sap from trees the old-fashioned way, in a horse-drawn barrel. Tours take visitors through the sugaring-off process, and there are maple grove walking (or snowshoeing) trails galore. A small farm and a snow slide are handy for children, with horse-drawn barrel rides and snowmobile access are available. For me, however, it was enough just to enjoy the best maple syrup ever…and you can bet I had quite a bit more than three drops. You will, too.

Ever wonder about the tree that completes french toast? Here are some interesting facts about maple trees:

  • Though Sugar Maple (aka Hard Maple) is the main maple producing tree, the sweet nectar can be tapped from five other maple trees, including the Red Maple, the Ash Leafed Maple, and the Silver Maple.
  • Other than its nectar, the Hard Maple tree is also used in furniture production.
  • Sap from Sugar Maple trees contain about two percent sugar – up to twice as much sugar than those from other maple-producing trees.
  • It takes about 40 years for a Sugar Maple tree to reach tappable age.
  • A typical 1.5 month-long maple sugaring season produces up to 47 litres of sap, which when distilled down,  yields only 1.4 liters of pure maple syrup.
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