Spring’s Sweet Harvest

It’s maple-syrup season, and in Quebec that means it’s time for hearty meals enjoyed at rustic sugar shacks.

By Susan Semenak

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Maple syrup means springtime in Quebec.Quebec’s maple forests are one of the Canadian province’s greatest natural treasures. Maples love it here, thriving in the cold climate on sunny hillsides and in shady forests, foliage blazing orange, red, and yellow every fall. They are majestic trees that germinate freely and grow relatively quickly, reaching heights of up to 100 feet within a few decades.

There are dozens of varieties of maple growing throughout southeastern Canada and the northeastern United States, but it is the sugar maple that is the most beloved, with its gray-brown shaggy bark and smooth-edged notched leaves. The sap of the sugar maple contains almost twice as much sugar as other species, a quality that was recognized by Native Americans long before Europeans arrived on the continent.

“People here smile when they spot the first cans of syrup at the market. It’s proof that we’ve all survived another winter,” says France Bisson, whose family produces nearly 2,000 gallons of maple syrup every year on their farm in St. Damase, just east of Montreal. “The flavor of maple has real resonance. To us, it tastes of nostalgia and family. Of our childhood, and of the land itself.

She is not exaggerating. After a long, hard winter, nothing signals spring in Quebec like the taste of maple syrup. It is sweet-tooth heaven when the new harvest arrives in early March, or as soon as the weather decides to offer up its magical mix of below-freezing nights and warm days. And it’s also big business: 75 percent of the world’s supply of maple syrup comes from Quebec

But for many here, maple season remains an intimate family affair. In years gone by, rural men would disappear into the woods for weeks on end to collect the metal sap buckets from their sugar-maple trees and stoke the fires in their rickety sugar shacks, drinking caribou de cabane, a potent blend of hot maple reduction and whiskey, while the sap boiled down. On weekends, the whole family would gather at the cabane for a rustic feast

Photography by Albert Elbilia

 
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