By: Angy Mamon
Photos: Javier Pinzón
The maple leaf featured on the Canadian flag is more than a patriotic symbol; Canadians have been steeped in the sweet culture of the maple since well before conquest. Around 80% of the maple syrup consumed around the world comes from the old forests of Quebec, a French-speaking province in southeastern Canada, where syrup is always on the table, right next to the salt and pepper.
It may have been just chance that led indigenous people in what is now Canada to discover the sweet sap inside maple trees that eventually became a national symbol. From as far back as anyone can remember, farmers have made small incisions in maples trees and waited for sap to fill a clay pot, drop by drop. During the conquest, indigenous people introduced the colonists to the art of producing the sweet substance, which was immediately incorporated into daily colonial life in the 17th and 18th centuries, when the syrup was the greatest available source of high-quality sugar. It is even believed that syrup provided one of the regions first methods for curing meat.
There are six species of maple, but the one that produces the most syrup is the sugar maple, also known as the hard maple, which grows to a height of nearly 100 feet. The sugar maple is found in the icy forests of southern Ontario, the province of Quebec, the Maritime Provinces (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island) and the New England states in the United States. These forests freeze during winter and put on a spectacular display of red and orange foliage during their lovely autumns.
There are now industrialized farms where maple trees are connected to pumps and pipelines that collect this tasty substance that is essential for weekend pancakes, but the ancient custom of waiting for each drop of syrup still lives on in sugar shacks, large farms in natural forests where syrup is extracted using old-fashioned methods.
Pierre Faucher, scion of a family that has produced maple syrup in the time-honored fashion for many years, was a pioneer in establishing these “sugar shacks,” which are now a tourist attraction. In 1980, after a round-the-world walking tour, he returned home and bought a 119-acre maple farm. He has received several commendations for preserving old traditions, and he now welcomes hundreds of tourists from around the world to his land. He demonstrates the traditional process and delights visitors with the more than one hundred French-Canadian recipes that use this delicious product, including pea soup, mashed potatoes, bean dishes, sausage and ham treats, omelet soufflés, bacon, and of course, maple bread and sugar pie.
The sweet sap begins to drip from the trees at the end of the harsh Canadian winter, when freezing nights alternate with the first warm days of spring. The season lasts four to six weeks, and each tree is able to produce sap for just ten to twenty days. Nonetheless, there are so many trees in Canada, that drop by drop, the country produces 80% of one of the world’s favorite pancake toppings. One tree produces thirty-seven to fifty-three quarts of sap per season, which is equivalent to approximately 1.5 quarts of pure syrup.
We arrive at Sucrerie de la Montagne, the iconic Quebec site of Pierre’s “sugar shack.” Pierre’s “Father Christmas” look has earned him the status of an icon and his face appears on hundreds of maple syrup products. His farm preserves traditional syrup gathering customs, old stoves, and old-fashioned tools. He uses an old hand drill to bore a 1.5-inch hole in a tree trunk. The number of holes per tree depends on how wide the tree is: the smallest (about 50 years old) have only one hole and the largest (about 300 years old) have four to five holes. For two months of the year, an aluminum container collects the precious sap, drop by drop. The trees can produce sap over the entire course of their lifetimes; humans use no more than 10% of their production.
After collecting the sap, indigenous people boiled it in clay pots for days to extract the sugar (around 20% of the content). After the conquest and the industrial revolution, syrup producers switched to aluminum pans, which reduce the water evaporation time to around six hours. More than half of the water in the sap must evaporate to produce the ideal concentration of sugar (between 60% to 80%). I can imagine the cold wood houses of yore, surrounded by snow on the outside and filled with sweet, warm steam on the inside.
The hot, bubbling syrup reaches 217 ºF and Pierre explains that it must reach the right density and texture before it is removed from the aluminum pans and filtered. The syrup is then stirred with a ladle and allowed to slowly drip off; it has reached the ideal point when the falling drops crack. New syrup is traditionally sampled accompanied by fresh snow from the maple forest. The hot syrup is carefully poured over the snow and stirred with a wooden stick so the syrup clings to the stick. Known as maple taffy, this delicacy has a soft, sticky texture and an intensely sweet flavor that is complemented by the refreshingly cold snow.
Little by little, the maple industry has diversified and developed new products using the sweet sap from the frozen forests. Pierre explains that the sap’s evaporation time and the concentration of sugar in the syrup vary depending on the product desired. Maple products include syrups of different qualities and concentrations, butter, wine, sugar, salad dressing, mustard, bread, cookies, candies, cakes, a variety of sweets, scented candles, and the latest novelty, a perfume that embodies all the sensations of these sweet forests.
Now that I am better acquainted with the history of the syrup that sweetens my delicious Sunday morning pancakes, I no longer see maples only as trees that make autumn a work of art; now I know they are also the source of this sweet wonder of the cold nights of Canadian winter. As I ride the subway to work, back home in the concrete forest, I realize that my winter coat retains a whiff of the maple perfume Pierre gave me. The scent transports me back to the frozen but sweet forest; I breathe its pure scent and remember those delicious traditional recipes that evoke the culture of the maple, a 100% natural and renewable product.