Mar
11

Cabane à Sucre

cabane a sucre

It is such a delight to share this story with you about visiting the legendary Cabane à Sucre (sugar shacks) of Quebec and Ontario. It's a rite of passage during childhood to help tap trees, harvest sap and boil it down to maple syrup over a fire, and nothing signals that spring is coming quite like it. Just the thought of it gives me a huge smile. I hope you enjoy this bit of Canadiana from contributors Lauren Kolyn (photos) and Julia Dawson (text), and if you live here with us in central Canada I hope this inpsires you to see out a sugar shack this season, the days have been climbing ever so slightly above zero, which means the sap will soon be running! Woohoo!

Right around the time when winter's grip begins to loosen, with the first signs of melting snow, the sugar maple trees of Quebec, Ontario and other regions of northeastern North America undergo a quiet transformation. The thaw of early spring awakens their roots, allowing sugary sap to flow beneath the bark. Experienced cultivators vigilantly watch their trees, the weather, and the atmospheric conditions that will dictate whether or not the sugar maples are ready for tapping. Some even wake several times in the night to check on their trees. When the time is right, they'll gather their implements and begin making notches in the bark, inserting a spout into each, and fastening pails underneath to collect the sap, bit by bit, drop by drop.

cabane a sucre

While it's true that maple syrup production in Quebec—which accounts for about 90% of Canada’s maple syrup yield—has become more commercial over the years, there are still a few small-batch producers that have inherited their craft from a long line of maple syrup harvesters. Luckily for us, this means that ancestral cabanes à sucre can still be found, some of them—like their ancestors—functioning without the use of electricity and modern machines. These places favour old methods and tools, like wood-burning ovens, oil lanterns, and even horse-drawn carriages (or snowshoes!) for maple sap collection.

cabane a sucre

Harvested Sap

 cabane a sucre

Visiting an old-fashioned cabane à sucre is like visiting an enchanted forest: endless rows of trees, adorned with silvery pails, lining the path to a small cabin with plumes of grey smoke coiling from its chimney. Sweet, earthy steam escapes from the sugarhouse, where wood-fed ovens are used to boil down the sap to make syrup. Everything about it—the sights and smells—evoke a familiar ritual, one that many of us living in Quebec, Ontario or New Brunswick have known since childhood.

cabane a sucre

cabane a sucre

At the centre of this ritual is the cabane à sucre feast—a rich, homemade offering served on great big communal tables. Staples include pea soup, glazed ham, sticky baked beans, maple-syrup omelets, meat pie (tourtière), homemade ketchup and pickles, pancakes and sugar pie. You'll also always find a bowl of salty, crispy (and cheekily-named) oreilles de crisse, the Quebecois version of deep-fried pork rinds. It's decadent. It's over the top. But it's cabane à sucre. And it's everything it should be.

cabane a sucre

cabane a sucre

cabane a sucre

cabane a sucre

cabane a sucre

cabane a sucre

After lunch, diners emerge from the sugar shack, happily woozy and rosy-cheeked from the meal and the heat of the kitchen's wood-burning oven, to partake in the final—and perhaps most coveted—part of the day: tire d'érable sur la neige. With wooden sticks in hand, we line up in front of a long, wooden trough to collect stringy mounds of caramel-colored maple taffy laid out on a fresh bed of snow [the snow rapidly cools the thickened syrup forming a sticky taffy]. As bits of taffy stick to our lips, our fingers, and even our noses, we can't help but giggle like children. We pause and savour, sitting among the very trees that produced the sweet confection on the end of our sticks.

Early spring at the cabane à sucre is a time of celebration—of the harvest, of tradition and of an ancestral craft that has been handed down from one generation to the next. At the end of a brief harvesting season, the tapping spouts are removed and the trees are given time to rest. Next year, when winter will again be nothing more than a whisper, new notches in the bark will be made and we'll gather again for another feast, to share in a tradition that we're thankful to call our own.

cabane a sucre

cabane a sucre


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