When envisioning a French-Canadian performing typical springtime traditions, you might imagine a lumberjack painting his igloo with blue lily flowers while wearing a plaid shirt and eating a maple-flavored poutine. I have to admit, making such an encounter would be quite funny, but it is unfortunately far from reality. Sure, we Quebecers take pride in embracing our heritage, but that is not exactly how we celebrate the beginning of sugaring season. In March and April, when the slightly warmer days start to melt the accumulated snow, we like to gather with our families to enjoy different sorts of traditions.
Both heralding the upcoming Easter and marking the arrival of spring, the sugaring season is the occasion for a lot of Quebecers to visit one of their favorite sugar shacks. There are plenty of which to choose from, as the province features many “cabanes à sucre”. To sum up, sugar shacks are semi-commercial establishments where the sap of maple trees is boiled in order to produce maple syrup. Also called sap house, sugar house, sugar cabin and sugar shanty, they are a true emblem of the warmer days in Quebec. Most shacks allow you to fully quench your thirst for authenticity, and are usually located outside of the city to further enhance the traditional experience. While smaller sugar houses often feel cozier, larger ones also feature a rustic décor and their larger reception hall is great for bigger families, as well as for corporate parties. In the end, the choice really depends on the number of guests we bring along, whether they be friends, relatives or colleagues. In most cases, availability sells out pretty quickly.
Sugar shack owners usually organize many activities for their guests, and the variety of things to do is often proportionate to the size of the business. Many sap houses are small or medium-sized, which is why all activities might not be available in the same place. Indeed, some of them are quite complicated to organize and can be hard to manage for family businesses that only have a few employees. Despite that, main activities can be recurrently found in all sugar shacks, as they are at the heart of spring traditions here in the province of Quebec.
A day at the sap house
While waiting for the whole group to arrive, it is not rare to see family members and friends gathered outside, trying to catch up or complaining about how rough the winter was. Joy is in the air, as the lukewarm morning sun kisses many cheeks and makes people want to unzip their coat. When everyone has finally arrived, the group starts moving toward the reception hall, which is already crowded with the other visitors. Inside, the large rustic tables are aligned in a most authentic setting, a massive pair of antlers sometimes adorning the warming hearth. The room can become quite cramped, but the meal that is about to be served is completely worth it. Everybody sits down and chats while the folk singers and musicians get ready in the small area reserved for them. As the traditional music starts to play, the guests are quickly reminded of their younger years at the “cabane à sucre”, while the youngest form whole new memories. It might be hard for the guests to hear each other, but it doesn’t matter. Particularly rich and appetizing smells start to fill the air as the food is slowly served on the tables, which are soon overfilled with greasy, delicious-looking meals. Families and friends are delighted to finally be able to fill their plates.
Some sugar houses serve the comforting pea soup, which warms the insides like no other meal. Thick slices of ham drenched in sweet maple syrup often fill a large plate at the center of the table, giving off the most exquisite aroma. Eggs, bacon and sausages are also commonly served, along with a heavy serving of the renown tourtière, a meat pie usually enjoyed with an unreasonable amount of ketchup. Mashed potatoes, baked beans, quiches and pig’s ears – also known as “oreilles de crisse” – also accompany most of the meals served in sugar shacks. After feasting on such a greasy brunch, guests are invited to savor some of the most decadent desserts, such as the pouding chômeur, cream fudge and the popular maple pie. Of course, whether they are desserts or not, all those foods would not be complete without a dose of the most delicious maple syrup.
After wolfing down a tremendous amount of food, guests are usually ready to go back outside in order to enjoy some traditional activities. The end of the brunch is a perfect time for families to gather under the sun once again and talk, while the sugar shack owner finishes preparing the renown and decadent maple taffy. Adults and children alike gaze upon him with fascinated eyes as he skillfully pours the molten syrup on the cold, white snow. Armed with popsicle sticks, all huddle together and wait for their turn to taste their favorite golden taffy, both excited and impatient to indulge their sweet tooth with one of the most Canadian treat there is. Most guests are enchanted to take part in such a nostalgic tradition, which is so deeply engraved in the heritage of the province.
As I previously mentioned, the other activities organized vary from place to place. While many producers offer a tour of their grounds for families to learn the maple syrup process, others also own a small farm, where children can ride ponies or pet miniature goats. Horse sleigh rides, walks and hikes in the woods and snow-shoeing activities are also commonly enjoyed by many sugar house visitors. A visit to a sugar shack can also be the occasion to take part in a snowball fight, which awakens the spirit of childhood while making for the most fun memories.
In the end, spending the day at a sugar cabin is a friend and family-related tradition celebrated by many people in the province. When thinking about spring, many of us reminisce about those times when we went out and enjoyed the arrival of spring in the best way possible. That is why this tradition is so popular and cherished by many Quebecers. When I think about it, it is also probably why we love maple syrup so much. Its syrupy deliciousness is highly associated to the many fun activities we take part in during the season, and its sweet taste reminds us of all the good memories we accumulate over the years. Fortunately, indulging our love for the best maple syrup is not only reserved for spring, as it can be enjoyed at any time of the year.