Monday, March 8, 2010

Sugar Shack in the Woods

Yesterday we took a little drive out of town to go walk in the woods, and came across this little cabane à sucre (sugar cabin or "sugarhouse"). We stopped to chat with the owner and his sister, who were in the process of making maple syrup. 


Maple-sugaring season has arrived a few weeks early this year in Québec.  Conditions have to be just right for this process, i.e., the days have to begin to be warm but nights remain still below freezing.  At this time sugar maples will begin to produce a watery sap to feed their branches in preparation for the little buds that will eventually become leaves. The sap is then extracted to prepare for making syrup.  Inserting a spout into the tree to extract some of this watery sap does not hurt the tree.

Buckets are attached at the base of the tree to collect the sap.

There were about 500 buckets here, in the woods surrounding
the cabin, some already nearly half full.

The long, slow process of extracting the sap begins,
drop by drop.

The sap collected from the buckets is then poured into this huge
holding tank and piped into the cabin, where it will be boiled,
as it slowly thickens into syrup.

A lot of wood is needed to fuel the fires of the stove
that will heat the sap for boiling.

Another pile cut and stacked inside the cabin, 
waiting to be fed into the woodstove.

The stove used to heat the evaporator pans.

The sap flows into the evaporator pans and is heated to about
219 C. (426 F).  At this particular sugarhouse, it takes around
40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup.

Steam rising from the boiling sap, escapes through an
opening near the ceiling.  It may be chilly outside but
inside the cabin it is warm and toasty.

As the sap boils, the water evaporates; it becomes denser &
sweeter, slowly turning the color of amber. It is then filtered 
through a cloth mesh and poured into bottles. 
We were offered a taste of the newly made syrup. 
It was exceptional. 


We say goodbye to the fellow at the sugar shack, thanking him 
and his sister for their hospitality in allowing us inside to see them at
work, an opportunity not generally afforded casual passersby.  

The product of their labor is not destined for supermarket shelves--
they make it simply for themselves and their families and friends. 

Neither these photos nor any description can adequately convey the pleasure of our experience that day: the sun filtering through the tall trees reaching up to a brilliant blue sky, the crunch of the ice and snow on the path underneath the feet, the sound of birds and the wind--but mostly silence; the smell of wood burning; the warmth of the cabin's small, inviting ancient kitchen; the smooth, delicious taste of that first sample, the sense of being completely at home with and part of nature.

You would have had to have been there.

And a nod hello again to the old, familiar Love Tree, 
where scores of passersby were compelled to inscribe their initials or
carve little hearts as proclamations of affection for someone--
that bizarre cultural practice of knifing into a tree
to have one's say, or leave one's "mark".

All in all, a magnificent afternoon out in the woods
among the birch and pine and maple trees under a magnificent sky
walking arm in arm in the snow, awaiting the arrival of Spring.

Quebéc produces most of the world's supply of maple syrup. The United States is the only other major producer and the leading consumer. [1]. It takes an incredible amount of work to produce this syruppy delight. To learn more about how maple syrup is made, in detail, click here--and for everything you ever wanted to know about maple syrup itself, click here.

A bit of history:   Maple sugar was one of the New World's first natural sweeteners.  Long before the arrival of European settlers, the Native American Indians dwelling in the Northeast were setting up sugaring camps.

The Indian process of sugar making, crude by modern-day standards, employed hollowed out logs, heated rocks for evaporating the sap, and handmade birch bark containers for collecting the sap and storing the maple sugar. Most of the tribes boiled and crystallized the sap they collected into a granulated maple sugar--bypassing the syrup stage as syrup was harder to store--ending up with a more transportable sweetener...

Although the Indians couldn't scientifically analyze maple syrup, they recognized it as a valuable food commodity. Today, scientists know it's composed of 88-89 percent sucrose, with fructose and glucose making up the rest. Maple sugar is particularly rich in potassium, containing from 1,300 to 3,900 ppm, and calcium, containing from 400-2,100 ppm, depending on the source. Other trace minerals present in appreciable amounts include magnesium, manganese and phosphorous. Maple products also contain trace amounts of malic and citric acids, as well as some amino acids.[2]

Maple sugar season is also the time for "sugar on snow" parties.  Already they have begun having such type festivities here in our province. "Sugar on snow" refers to a bit of  piping hot, carmelized maple syrup poured over a bit of packed snow, which you then eat.  Or you can use small wooden sticks to scoop up the syruppy sugar-snow concoction from special boxes or troughs set up outdoors (or sometimes inside a facility).  (If you do this yourself in your back yard, use only clean snow, please!).  :)  

 There are over 200 cabanes à sucre (or sites de l'Erabliè, as they are called), here in Québec--places where one can go to celebrate maple syrup season and experience the traditional "sugar on snow" festivities, popular here since the 19th century.  You go there to eat maple-laden snow with a bunch of other people and you all sing, dance, and have a whopping good time.  Well, not everyone sings and dances, mostly they just eat, but I've never been to one yet where lively, foot-stompin' music didn't factor into it.  :)

Click here for a list of Québec restaurants, inns or sugarhouses (some of which provide rides on horse-drawn sleighs!) that offer this traditional fête, grouped according to region.  And for those interested, click here for recipes of dishes commonly served at these festivities, such as crêpes, pea soup, omelettes, ham, des oreilles de crisse (deep fried, smoked pork rinds, with bread), baked beans, and maple syrup pie.  (People with weak teeth, watch out for those pork rinds!  They're wicked hard!  I won't touch them myself, being a semi-vegetarian--but lots of folks really love them..  A bit heavy on the cholesterol, but hey, it's only once a year.)

Sugar snow parties don't only occur in Quebec.  You can find them all over the New England states and New York state as well.  Probably more, but I'm only familiar with the upper northeast side of the continent.  Here is a list of sugarhouses in:  Maine, VermontNew Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island; and in New York State.

Thank you, First Peoples, for introducing us to this delectable substance.
Welcome Sugar Maple Syrup time!
Welcome Spring!  (enfin!)

It's also soon the beginning of the dreaded Mud Season ... but we won't go there just yet.  For now, let's just enjoy our maple syrup days!

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