The Maple Syrup Can
Remembering traditional Québec springtime celebrations and re-discovering all about the wonderful sugar... from the maple trees!
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 in North America woodland regions, especially in Québec, maple syrup is the most important native food ingredient from the country. Indigenous peoples were the first to cultivate the sugar sap of maple trees and taught the process to the early settlers. When 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 easy to tap. Then begins the season of sugar, 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 with warmer changes as the more a summer is hotter in temperature, the more tree growth is enhanced, the sweetness rate is higher and the harvest comes earlier. 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 to the “sugar 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 camps in Québec • Photos by Gaétan Bolduc (first 2) and Valérie Goulet
Now this is an interesting fact that 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 simply added on a sticker on the back of the can. Glass bottles in the shape of a maple leaf along with 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 up to 6 months in the refrigerator. Canadian maple syrup can be purchased in most Australian supermarkets and there are 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 do the trip to Québec, I never miss bringing back few cans purchased in the region 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 were bringing wooden spoons to dip it in a big outdoor boiler pot. Just by thinking of it, I can almost remember exactly how the fresh syrup smelled and how it tasted on my spoon hmmm. I also remember the sugar rush spent by 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 a little bit different than 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 at early spring and the food is… rich… but delish. I will get back to that subject soon, but to get an idea, just make an image search online of “repas de cabane à sucre”. I was always doing my best to avoid these indulgent places but I’d give anything to go “sugar shacking” right now!
Maple products at Jean-Talon market, Montréal • Photos © Bottle and Brush Studio 2019
Maple products made with the syrup are so delicious, like maple butter, maple sugar or flakes, maple candy, maple cones, maple whisky* and so much more! Pure maple syrup is clear, translucent and has different quality grades, classification and sub-categories. First is very light with the finest delicate flavour reminding freshly boiled syrup. The medium grade has light to amber colour with a balance of mild, sweet and rich maple flavour. This is the most popular and typically used for pancakes and cooking. The darker one has a strong caramelized taste but loses the maple woody 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 mostly contain corn syrup mixed with artificial maple flavour. In Québec, we call those poor quality and fake maple syrup: “sirop de poteau” (telephone post syrup). The traditional “tire sur neige” (taffy on snow) is one that fascinates many visitors and I did my first DIY experience in Australia when we had a little drop of snow on the foothills of the Snowy Mountains. I’ll get back to this subject also later for sure!
*The unique Canadian whisky and maple syrup blend liquor “Sortilège” is delectable and can be purchase here in Australia!
COOKING USE AND TIPS
I can’t really 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 pancakes and waffles but there are many other ways to use it as an ingredient for deserts and all sorts of dishes. It brings amazing flavour to meat, 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 to 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 and spruce essence. The boreal forest also hides delicious wild food and so does the native bush of Australia. I have started to explore and mix together many of these flavours and I look forward to sharing those ideas and inspirations on Snowy Foodie blog!
Check out my related posts, recipes and inspirations: (to come!)