The Maple Syrup Can
Updated: Oct 12
Rediscovering Québec springtime celebrations and the wonderful sap of maple trees, traditionally boiled and canned in a forest sugar shack!
The maple leaf is the symbol of Canada and the sweet syrup coming from the trees is a source of Canadian pride. Produced all over the eastern North American woodland regions, especially in Québec, maple syrup is the country's most important native food ingredient. Indigenous peoples were the first to cultivate the sugar sap of maple trees and taught the process to the early settlers. When the snow begins to melt in spring, the water is absorbed into the maple trees, and warmer days push the water back down, which makes it possible to tap. Then the "season of the sugars" begins and lasts for a short period only, normally from mid-March to the end of April. Spring thaw and weather conditions are critical to the length of the sugar season. There are now more challenges adapting to warmer changes. The more a summer is hotter, the more tree growth is enhanced, which results in a higher sweetness rate and an early harvest. The sap, also called maple water, as it is a transparent liquid, is collected from the tree by drilling a hole in the trunk that will leak into the traditional buckets or modern tubing. It is then carried (traditionally with horses) to the “cabane à sucre” (often translated as sugar shack, camp or house) to be boiled in a large evaporator to process the water as a concentrated sweet syrup. The syrup is then filtered and bottled or canned.
Sugar shack camp in Québec • Photos by Gaétan Bolduc (first 2) and Valérie Goulet
This interesting fact caught the attention of my “designer’s mind”. The famous iconic illustrated syrup can is a Québec classic packaging and is the preferred format by locals. The original design dates back to 1951 when canning became a new method, and the artist’s name, who won the contest held all over the province, remains a mystery. There are a few versions now, and all represent a traditional sugar camp winter scene. The maple producer’s info is added on a sticker on the back of the can. The glass bottles shaped like maple leaves and plastic or metal containers (looking like oil tins) are more popular in tourist shops. Packaging depends on industry standards and cost, but the syrup can be preserved for up to 3 years in cans of metal or glass jars and only two years in plastic. Once opened, the product can be kept in the refrigerator for up to 6 months. Canadian maple syrup can be purchased in most Australian supermarkets. There are a few brands that I prefer and can recommend so far with the ones I’ve tasted, which are the ones that come in a glass bottle with a handle. But each time I make the trip to Québec, I never miss bringing back a few cans purchased in the region where I was born, all packed safely in my suitcases as those are like precious gold to me, especially now living overseas!
The region where I grew up, in the Appalachian mountains of Québec, is one of the top maple-producing regions in the world. When I was a child, my family had annual sugar afternoon parties at an uncle’s old rustic érablière (maple bush camp). All guests brought a wooden spatula to dip in a big outdoor boiler pot and scoop some taffy on snow. Just by thinking of it, I can almost remember exactly how the fresh syrup smelled and how it tasted hmmm. I also remember the sugar rush spent running in the woods with my cousin and drinking the water sap straight from the tree buckets, even if forbidden by our mums. Later in my life in the Montreal region, the traditional “Cabane à Sucre” (sugar shack) culture I discovered was slightly different from the private one I knew. From small family-owned wood cabins to commercial dining halls, those venues offer the complete gastronomic experience served with terroir produce, followed by some taffy on snow and activities like horse sleigh rides, traditional music, snowshoe hikes in the woods, observing maple syrup process, etc. Those places are very popular in early spring, and the food is… rich… but delish.
Maple products at Jean-Talon market, Montréal • Photos © Bottle and Brush Studio 2019
Maple products made with syrup are so delicious, like maple butter, maple sugar or flakes, maple candy, maple cones, maple whisky liquor* and so much more! Pure maple syrup is clear, translucent, and has different quality grades, classifications, and sub-categories. The early harvest one is very light with the finest delicate flavour reminding freshly boiled syrup. The light to amber colour with a balance of mild, sweet and rich maple flavour is the most popular and typically used for pancakes and cooking. The late harvest darker one has a strong caramelized taste but loses the maple sap flavour. This one is mostly imported internationally as it is less expensive. The very last ones, ultra dark, are only used as a commercial flavouring ingredient for the food industry, like in the classic maple leaf cookies. There are many commercial brands of table syrups that should be avoided as they contain corn syrup mixed with artificial maple flavour. In Québec, we call those poor qualities and fake maple syrup: “sirop de poteau” (telephone post syrup). The traditional “tire sur neige” (taffy on snow) fascinates visitors, and I've been able to make some in Australia's Snowy Mountains. Story here and recipe to come!
*The unique Canadian whisky and maple syrup blend liquor “Sortilège” is delectable and can be purchased here in Australia!
Making maple taffy on snow in Australia • Photography © Bottle and Brush Studio 2020-21
COOKING USE AND TIPS
I cannot give any cultivation tips, not only because I never experienced it myself, but because it would be impossible in Australia’s conditions, even in the Snowy regions. Sugar maple tree varieties can be grown here, but winters are not long or cold enough to be suitable for harvesting the sap. Table maple syrup is commonly used on crêpes, pancakes and waffles, but there are so many ways to use it as an ingredient for desserts and all sorts of dishes. It brings amazing flavour to meat (marinades, roasts, stews), roasted nuts, vegetables, salad dressing, baked beans, and so much more! Other than that, I love it simply on plain yogurt. Pure natural maple syrup has nutritional benefits, offering high sources of antioxidants and nutrients with fewer calories than honey. It is a good source of energy and one of the few good sugars, which makes a great substitute for any sugar in most recipes. Maple syrup is the star of the Canadian terroir tree nectar, but there are some other special and fairly unknown interesting examples like birch syrup. The boreal forest also hides delicious wild food and flavours and that is another story to come on Snowy Foodie!
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