This tradition has been kept alive in the hundreds of restaurant-style cabanes à sucre scattered throughout the countryside around Montreal and Quebec City. On weekends, city dwellers come, en famille, to pig out at tables laden with pea soup, tourtière, and other gut-busting old favorites. A fiddler is sure to be playing a few lively folk tunes while the children run wild from the sugar rush brought on by too much tire d’erable: maple taffy made by drizzling hot syrup on snow.
Over the past few decades, though, the sugar shack’s allure had begun to fade, taking on the whiff of tourist-trap kitsch. Too often, the scrambled eggs were rubbery and the maple pie came with a factory-made crust.
That’s where chef Martin Picard comes in. On a chilly late afternoon in March, dressed in his trademark lumberjack shirt, Picard is on his tractor clearing the parking lot outside his sugar shack in St. Benoît de Mirabel, half an hour or so northwest of Montreal. An unexpected spring squall has coated the muddy, gray landscape in snow, and soon his Cabane à Sucre Au Pied de Cochon will be jammed. Dozens of revelers will sit at long communal tables indulging in an endless banquet of maple-infused dishes: herring pickled in salt, vinegar, and maple syrup; soufflé-style omelets studded with lobster and topped by mountains of smoked meat brined in maple and spice; puff pastry filled with entire lobes of foie gras. And those are only the starters. The main course? Maple-glazed duck and maple-barbecued pork belly, bien sûr.
Picard is one of Quebec’s top chefs, a renegade with a taste for excess. His Montreal restaurant, Au Pied de Cochon, is a gastronomic landmark. So when he bought the run-down maple shack 5 years ago, he made it his mission to reinvent the cabane à sucre. Reservations are coveted among food lovers. The entire season, which lasts from March through May, is booked solid months before sugaring even begins. His cookbook Au Pied de Cochon Sugar Shack is a bestseller.
“Here in Quebec, maple syrup is part of our genetic code,” says Picard, sitting on a fur-lined stool in his kitchen. “The cabane à sucre is a beloved tradition, one I want to nurture. And I want to inspire other chefs to do so, too.”
Photography by Albert Elbilia