He has succeeded. Thanks to Picard and a generation of creative young chefs, maple syrup has newfound sex appeal. In Montreal’s trendy Old Port district, for example, visiting chefs take turns running the kitchen at La Cabane, a sleek urban sugar shack where diners forgo the trek to the woods to sip maple mojitos while watching the sun set over the city skyline.
“The references are folkloric, but everything else is urban and sophisticated,” says chef Martin Juneau, describing his menu at La Cabane, which features smoked bison canapés and duck bouillon with cipollini onion.
It is a lot more rustic back in the wood-paneled kitchen at Cabane à Sucre Au Pied de Cochon. Cooks in raccoon-skin hats haul tubs of marinated pork belly and 50-pound sacks of potatoes and cabbage, preparing for the evening service. Martin’s whole family is here, including his wife, Nancy, who manages the dining room, and his Uncle Marc, who is fiddling with a faulty valve in the evaporating room. Picard’s children, Emile and Charlotte, have just come in to warm up by the potbellied stove after building a snowman outside. In the kitchen, pastry chef Gabrielle Rivard-Hiller is filling éclairs with maple cream.
“For generations, we were stuck in our grandmothers’ old recipes for crêpes and maple pie,” Rivard-Hiller says. “Now we are letting ourselves play. We make macarons and nougat and mille-feuilles. We spin maple syrup into cotton candy and sneak it into chocolate-coated marshmallow cookies.”
She pauses before summing up what may be the driving force behind Quebec’s revived sugar shack tradition: “We’re just having fun.”
Photography by Albert Elbilia