March is the beginning of maple syrup season!
Growing up in Canada, I learned early on that the month of March means ‘Sugaring-Off’. WHAT!?? If you’ve never tried it, you’re in for a treat.
In eastern Ontario and much of Québec it’s all about the maple syrup at this time of year. The landscape is still buried in snow but the people start to sense the turning of a new season. As the days grow longer and the colour of the light changes one can smell a fresh optimism in the light breezes and we know that the sap has started to flow in the sugar maples.
Although syrup can be boiled down using sap from different species of trees such as the bigleaf maple, it’s the sugar maple forests in this part of Canada that see most of the maple syrup action. Everyone gets into the game, from the big companies to friends and neighbours who tap a few trees and boil up a few quarts of the honeyed elixir. Modern maple syrup production is a big business (who can forget the dastardly Maple Syrup Heist of 2011?) but it’s also a mom & pop pursuit. One of my favourite gifts to receive is a small jar of a friend’s personal stock, rich with the local terroir and the smokey, burnt taffy finish.
Come March, when winter temperatures begin to rise, sap is collected from the trees and boiled down in sugar shanties/sugar shacks with big evaporators fueled by wood fires. I have vivid memories of waiting impatiently for the sugar shanty man (invariably dressed in a plaid lumberjacket, big boots and toque) to ladle hot maple syrup on to freshly-fallen snow. It signaled to us kids that it was time to grab our popsicle sticks and twirl them in the snow and syrup to make taffy pops.
It’s time to get outside and celebrate the coming of a new season!
Another big sugaring-off tradition is a pancake meal served with sausages and baked beans. Many sugar shanties offer these too. If you can’t make it out to one (and you’ve got a bit of fresh snow kicking around) make your own version of maple taffy. Buy a bottle of pure maple syrup, boil it down and add it to the snow. Here’s a fun YouTube video to show you how to make maple taffy.
Here are just a few suggestions to get you started on your own maple syrup-inspired adventure …
The Fulton family has been making maple syrup on the family farm near Pakenham, Ontario for over 170 years. Located south of Arnprior, the Fulton family farm hosts a Maple Weekend at its pancake house and sugar bush.
Mapleside Sugar Bush can be found off of Green Lake Road and Highway 41 between Pembroke and Eganville. You can walk through the sugar bush and see how the Bronenburg family collects maple sap before visiting their shanty. Besides maple syrup and homemade maple candy, the Bronenburg family has developed some pretty interesting maple products, including Maple Mint Vinegar, a nice addition to a salad dressing.
The Deakins B&B in Killaloe gives you a chance to make your own maple syrup, even AFTER the usual sugar season.
Sucrerie Alary is on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River near the little community of Luskville. Its maple syrup season generally runs from mid-March to mid-April. To get there, cross the Ottawa at Chenaux, north of Renfrew. Three hundred years ago, French Voyageurs in freighter canoes filled with furs made their way down the Ottawa River to Montreal and Québec. At Chenaux they faced a difficult portage to avoid rapids. Their portage trail became known as Portage du Fort (portage of the strong). The little town of Portage du Fort was named after the trail. You go through it and then continue east on Route 148 to Sucrerie Alary which is about four kilometres west of Luskville off the 148. Trails at Sucrerie Alary wind through a 350 year old maple sugar bush where you can often spot owls, eagles and even wild turkey. A bonfire is usually going and even though there are no pancake meals, there are lots of homemade maple treats to try.
Also in Québec, in the municipality of Rigaud, is the world-famous Sucrerie de la Montagne. It’s an immersive sugar shack experience like no other … Axe throwing anyone?