Maple-flavoured feasts await in the wintry woods of Quebec, writes Katrina Lobley.
APPROACHING my very first "sugar shack" in the wilds of Quebec, there are some things I expect. I'm pretty sure there will be a bare-branched maple forest, given it's still winter, plus a wood-fired evaporator that boils their sap, known as "maple water", into one of Canada's most famously delicious products.
Quebecers have also clued me in about the sugar-shack meal. The reason visitors flock to the province's many sugar shacks is not for the bucolic scenery or to learn about maple syrup production (Quebec, by the way, produces about 75 per cent of the world supply) but simply to eat themselves silly. These places serve up platter upon platter of the old-time hearty fare that rewarded half-frozen workers collecting sap in March and April, the time of year when sap freezes at night but flows freely during the somewhat meagre warmth of the days.
The one thing I'm not expecting at Sucrerie de la Montagne is its colourful owner, Pierre Faucher, and his three-quarter wolf, one-quarter husky Louploup (pronounced Lulu - loup is French for wolf). I'm gingerly slip-sliding up the icy track from the parking lot to the dining halls when a car pulls up alongside. Pierre, instantly recognisable with his bushy white beard, is behind the wheel.
"You staying here tonight?" he asks somewhat rhetorically. With just four guest cabins that he calls maisonettes, he clearly has a grip on who's going where around his place and why. "There's deer, there's wolves - are you scared?"
"Should I be?" I shoot back. He roars with laughter. Pierre looks like Father Christmas but he's more like Bad Santa - and his naughty streak just announced itself. After telling me he'll put me up in the pigsty, he zooms off up to the dining room.
My dining companion and I hang our scarves and jackets on crochet-covered hangers after Pierre asks if we'd like to "take our clothes off" and warm up with a glass of the house caribou (a mix of red, white and blueberry wines, whiskey and maple syrup). Pierre goes ahead and spreads himself around. There are a bunch of women here for lunch - breast cancer survivors - who last gathered here about five years ago. Pierre flatters them by remembering exactly what table they sat at back then.
There's also a twentysomething couple from Brazil, who made the trek because they read a 2009 New York Times article about Pierre and his sugar shack. They pop themselves under each of his arms - he dresses as though he's stepped straight from the pages of a history book, complete with a 19th-century wool sash known as a ceinture flechee that's particular to Quebec - and have a photo snapped.
Friday lunch isn't really the time when this place comes alive. That's reserved for the weekends, when a horse-drawn sleigh ferries diners from the parking lot to the biggest of the dining halls, which also features live fiddle music.
For today, we're in the cosier and more rustic Salle Castor, lit only by lamplight, firelight and the weak daylight filtering through the windows. Luckily I don't have to try to read a menu because the food just comes.
First, a waitress dressed in an old-fashioned floor-length frilled apron brings a bowl of mountain dweller's pea soup. That's followed by plates of maple-smoked ham, a delicately scented meatball stew, sausages, thick crispy pork rinds, baked beans, a rustic mash, light-as-a-snowflake omelet souffle and meat pie. A wine bottle filled with what looks like caribou turns out to be maple syrup. Of course. The idea is that you liberally splash it over everything bar the meat pie, which should be anointed with the home-made fruit ketchup. Dessert is a wedge of sugar pie - an iconic Quebec concoction of pastry filled with maple sugar, maple syrup and cream.
When I can't squeeze in another bite, Pierre leads me outside to show how, in a few weeks' time, he'll be drilling holes in about 1500 mature maples to insert spigots that catch the clear sap as it flows upwards through the trunks. From the spigot, he hangs a pail with a lid. It takes up to 40 litres of sap to produce just one litre of the precious syrup. I'll never complain about the price of maple syrup again.
I've had a hankering for maple taffy on snow ever since I saw this snack being made near a Quebec City ice-skating rink, so Pierre heats a cup of syrup and pours golden strips onto a bed of snow. The idea is to roll and twirl the rapidly hardening taffy onto a stick that you gobble down before it stretches back out of shape. Members of a wedding party are starting to arrive; Pierre offers taffy sticks to them as well. "I haven't done this since I was a kid," says one guy, grinning at the unexpected treat.
But elsewhere, trouble is brewing. The couple marrying tomorrow have left bags of goodies for their guests within reach of Louploup, who's run away with something delicious. That's wolves for you.
I wander down to my log cabin - the Maisonette du Sous-Bois - tucked away near the sawmill, fearing I might have to build a fire to heat it. But it's toasty warm and delightfully rustic, with tiny stairs leading to a double bed and claw-foot bath in the attic. Downstairs there's a fieldstone fireplace, plenty of split wood, a rocking chair, kitchenette and another bathroom. With no TV, no internet access, no phone and absolute silence from the snowy woods outside, it's easy to imagine you're in an episode of Little House on the Prairie.
Next morning, I have an early departure; Pierre mock-grumbles about having to get up and flip my pancakes himself. The bride and her hens surprise him by also turning up early for breakfast. He's barely got time to sip the coffee he's sweetened with a slug of maple syrup.
When I take my leave he comes too, telling one of the bridesmaids to keep flipping. "They love it," he says. "That'll give them something to talk about." And with that, he plants four kisses in farewell - double the usual for a Quebecer. But then, there's nothing usual about this sugar daddy.
The writer travelled courtesy of the Canadian Tourism Commission.
The 48-hectare Sucrerie de la Montagne is at 300 Chemin
St-Georges, Rigaud, Quebec, about an hour's drive west of Montreal. It's open year-round. sucreriedelamontagne.com.
See + do
The sugaring-off feast costs $C27 ($25.60) for adults, $C17 for children aged seven to 12 and $C11 for children aged three to six; or $C31/$C18/$C12 for Saturday dinner or Sunday lunch. You can buy maple products at the general store.
A night in a maisonette costs $C85, or $C110 with dinner, or $C135 with dinner and breakfast; children aged six to 12 stay for $C55/$C65/$C75 a night, children aged five and under stay free.
Where the workers go, sweetness follows
Quebec boasts hundreds of sugar shacks — or cabanes a sucre — and feasting (and perhaps even dancing) at one is a beloved spring ritual. Originally, sugar shacks simply housed the equipment that turned maple water into maple syrup. Someone eventually came up with the bright idea of offering the hearty workers' meal to the public — and a French-Canadian tradition was born.
Some sugar shacks have taken the haute road. Chef Martin Picard's Cabane a Sucre Au Pied de Cochon (cabaneasucreaupieddecochon.com), 45 minutes from Montreal in
St-Benoit de Mirabel, adds chunks of foie gras to the pea soup and the fluffy omelet might be stuffed with maple-smoked sturgeon. His 2012 season sold out in a snap — it's now waiting-list only.
If you're willing to forgo the rural ambience and the sheer fun and adventure of tracking down a back-road sugar shack, then try La Cabane (lacabane.ca) in Montreal's Old Port, which is open until the end of April. It features a sugar shack-inspired menu that includes smoked bison on Melba toast, duck noodle soup and fritters stuffed with maple butter.