There’s nowhere sweeter than the ‘sugar shacks’ of Quebec at maple harvest time
Something was stirring in the woods. Sweet smells and live music rose from the forest as we skied through a maple grove. We pulled up at a little wooden building and a man with a bushy beard popped out.
“Welcome to the Sucrerie de la Montagne,” said Stefan Faucher, who manages this “sugar shack” (maple syrup farm) in Rigaud, about 40 miles west of Montreal. Inside, he offered us a glass of Caribou, a cocktail made from wine, whiskey and maple syrup. Maple syrup was the key ingredient in all the food and drink I was offered during my stay in this area, which was celebrating “sugaring-off”, the festival that marks the end of the maple syrup harvest and the beginning of spring.
Quebec is one of the few places in the world where conditions are right for harvesting maple sap. The trees store sugar in their roots before winter, then in spring, when daytime temperatures increase, the sap rises and can then be drained out of holes drilled into the trunks. Three-quarters of the world’s maple syrup comes from this province, yet the season is short – concentrated into February, March and April.
No one knows exactly when the maple harvest will start, but head there in late March or early April and you should witness it – and there should still be snow on the ground.
At this time, Montreal-dwellers brag to each other about having discovered the most authentic sugar shack. They might drive out to one for one meal but, in fact, the best way to enjoy the season is by cross-country skiing between sugar shacks. Local hotels and restaurants have developed a maple syrup ski trail, where you ski between producers that offer overnight accommodation.
Sucrerie de la Montagne is one of the most popular; it is open all year round (unlike many) and offers accommodation as well as sweet treats, and the traditional sugaring-off feast – an evening of gorging on syrup-infused foods, with music and dancing.
Stefan’s father, Pierre, known as “the Santa Claus guy”, because of his big white beard, opened the farm in 1978. He has added a traditional Quebecois village, buying nearby buildings and reassembling them here to create a village that looks much as it might have done 200 years ago, with a bakery, a general store and log cabins with accommodation for up to 16 guests, who can also go on horse-drawn sleigh rides.
Our cabin had an impressive stone fireplace and beds made from hewn logs. Sitting on the front porch, we could hear the sap dripping from the small taps stuck into the trees, and making a chiming sound as it hit the metal buckets. Stefan confessed that when he hears the first drips of the season, he leaps around like an excited child. The days of emptying buckets into horse-drawn barrels are mostly gone replaced, for most of the 10,000 Quebec producers, by efficient plastic tube extraction.
Sucrerie de la Montagne is well-placed for the 140-plus miles of cross-country trails of the Mont Rigaud ski area. There are plenty of places to rent equipment, and the path of a former railway line, the P’tit Train du Nord, makes a great, flat location to practise.
In anticipation of burning calories the next day, my friend and I spent our first evening tucking into the sugaring-off feast. This was comfort food taken to another level. We ate pea soup with homemade bread followed by tortière (a minced pork pie), sausages in syrup, maple-smoked ham, meatballs, omelette, mashed potato, fèves au lard (baked beans cooked with salt pork and, yes, more syrup) and oreilles de crisse, deep-fried pork jowls or, literally, Christ’s ears. They reminded me of pork scratchings.
After a dessert of pancakes in syrup, we staggered to the bakery for a lesson in tapping maples, and making tire sur la neige, where hot, reduced syrup is poured on to snow and rolled onto sticks as it cools to make toffee-like lollies.
Not content with just one highly calorific meal, we set off next morning on our skis to another sugar shack a few miles south for lunch. Our guide, hired at the Fauchers’ sucrerie, led us through the woods along a beautiful winding and totally empty trail. We stopped beside one producer’s plastic sap pipe to listen to the sap being pumped along inside.
At the St-Henri sucrerie, owner François Beliveau explained to us that it takes 40 litres of sap to make a litre of syrup. He makes 25,000 litres from his forest of 33,000 trees every year. In a dining room filled with enthusiastic local families we ate a lunch featuring more amazing oreilles de crisse, and grand-père dans le sirop (dumplings in maple syrup), then went to see the syrup being made, in an enormous bubbling evaporateur that enveloped us in sugary steam.
Our next hotel, the Auberge des Gallant, was a few miles to the south. There we opted for a lazy afternoon having maple creams applied to our skin at the spa. Dinner was also syrup-based, but in a less traditional way: pan-fried sweetbreads with maple liquor and walnuts, arctic char with Jack Daniel’s, and maple crème brûlée, washed down by another Quebec favourite – cidre de glace, ice cider, made from frozen apples.
As we skied past yet another cabin in the woods the next afternoon, I realised where I had seen the view before: on our breakfast table. One brand of maple syrup features a picture just like it on the tin: the metal buckets on the trees and the forest in the snow. Now, during a long winter, I gaze at the image and long to return to the woods – for sugaring-off and the start of spring.
■ Sucrerie de la Montagne (00 1 450 451 0831; sucreriedelamontagne.com) offers dinner, B&B from $125pp. Auberge des Gallant (001 450 459 4241; gallant.qc.ca) offers dinner, B&B from $317 for two ($465 with spa treatment). British Airways (ba.com) flies from Heathrow to Montreal from £378. For more information see bonjourquebec.com and tourisme-montreal.org.
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Submited at Sunday, February 7th, 2010 at 6:00 am on Hotel by alliana
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