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Smoked Meat Diaries #4: In Sap We Trust

Posted by Will / April 14, 2009


It's early April, and that means it's time for families to come together, gather round the table, and show reverence to a sacred symbol they hold dear. It's not just a symbol, though; it's so much more. It's something that gives us life and invigorates the soul. Yes indeed, it's the holiest of seasons in Quebec: the boiling of sap into delicious maple syrup.

It didn't take long to figure out that maple syrup is a pretty big deal in Quebec. You can't swing a Fleur de Lys in Montreal without knocking over several cans of the stuff. As a prairie boy, I thought maple syrup was the stuff of waffles and pancakes. Rest assured, I got straight-up learned in a hurry. One day we stayed over at La Belle Fille's mom's house, and in the morning she made us a beautiful spread of food. Pancakes, bacon, ham, sausage, hashbrowns, toast, eggs, coffee, juice. The whole nine. I surveyed the wonderful spread and thought, hmmm, a little syrup would go nicely on these pancakes. So I politely asked, "La Belle Mère, auriez vous d'Aunt Jemima?"

At once the room became eerily silent after several forks crashed to their plates and a table full of suddenly ornery Quebecois and Quebecoises stared at me with furrowed brows.

20090414-jemima.jpg"Bite your tongue young man!"
"Never let me hear the name of that beastly woman ever again!"
"You do not mutter that filthy moniker in this household, you hear me?!"
"She-Devil! Her name sullies the honoured tradition of Quebec maple syrup!"

Of course, all of this was shouted at me in French so I thought everyone was telling me how dashing I looked in my new Canadiens pajamas. Turns out, the only maple syrup worth consuming is pure Quebec-made maple syrup. Everything else is considered over-processed, synthetic crap. Aunt Jemima is not actually maple syrup, it's "pancake syrup," i.e. corn syrup with maple flavouring. Not pure = not good. So I tried some pure maple syrup and what a difference! All was forgiven - until I declined to put syrup on my sausage (insert obvious joke here).

"Just try it."
"Nahh, I'm good."
"C'mon try it. It's great."
"No thanks, I'll stick to syrup on my pancakes."
"Hey! Don't be an asshole. Put some syrup on your sausages!"

So I did. And wow! Who knew mapley, sugary sausages would be so good? I was amazed at the versatility of maple syrup - it can go on everything! It's quite the condiment. Syrup on your bacon? Sure. Delicious. Syrup on ham? Absolutely. Bon appetite. Syrup on eggs? What the hell are you waiting for? Go for it! Syrup on hashbrowns? Dare to be bold! Maple-ize those potatoes!

They also had something called "maple butter," a sugary spread to put on toast. Then there was "maple sugar" and even "maple bread"! Did I just enter the maple twilight zone?

20090414-tree.jpg"So where do all these maple products come from?" I asked naively.

"What the bejeebus have you been teaching this boy?" everyone asked La Belle Fille. It was time to visit a Cabane à Sucre! We went to one just outside Montreal, owned by a guy who looked like a deranged version of Paul Bunyan after one too many ice ciders.

Tucked away in the forest, the cabin was surrounded by an army of maple trees, sap oozing into pails hanging from their trunks like loose armour, a collection of scrawny knights ready for battle. But the only confrontation I was interested in involved my stomach. Thankfully, shortly upon being seated in a large room in the main cabin, we were bombarded with food. First, fresh-baked bread, directly from the wood stoves of the neighbouring "boulangerie." Then authentic French-Canadian pea soup, followed by a main course of salted back bacon, maple-smoked ham, baked beans, country-style omelets, meatball stew, sausages, mashed potatoes, and meat pie.

And there was plenty of maple syrup to go around. On the table was a large, clear bottle filled with the stuff. Upon arrival I actually thought it was iced tea but a glass and a half later, I figured it out. The only problem was that the syrup dripped over the sides of the bottle as it was passed around the table. After the meal, everyone's hands were stickier than the hands of a guy searching for a contact lens on the floor of a booth at "Cinema Sexe" (sorry I had to go there, just seeing if you're still paying attention).



For dessert, we enjoyed pancakes with more maple syrup, sugar pie, and coffee (with maple syrup, of course!). And what kind of maple syrup experience would be complete without "tire d'erables" (maple taffy) which we enjoyed just outside of the Cabane à Sucre proper.

And the funny thing is I'm not even sick of maple syrup. I can't wait to get my hands on anything maple. Am I addicted to maple products? If I don't feed my maple obsession, am I going to wake up in the middle of the night with the "maple sweats" craving two fingers of syrup?

I think I may need help.

Relevant song:
"Sugar Mountain" by Neil Young:
Oh, to live on Sugar Mountain/ With the barkers and the colored balloons/
You can't be twenty on Sugar Mountain/ Though you're thinking that you're leaving there too soon

Photo credits go to Midnight Poutine Flickr poolers Aubane and cafeine09, as well as the good people at Aunt Jemima, and the author himself.



Margot / June 4, 2009 at 10:49 am
Comments on this post in an earlier incarnation:

Fantastic! Which Cabane à Sucre did you go to? I've been trying to find a place that makes a plate as sexy looking as that LOL!
Posted by: LouTreize at April 14, 2009 10:06 AM

It was called "Sucrerie de la Montagne" - about an hour west of Montreal.
Posted by: Will Shead at April 14, 2009 11:04 AM

My fave Quebec expression for the likes of Aunt Jemima is "sirop de poteau" - i.e., implying you get it out of a telephone pole, not a tree.
Posted by: Kate M. at April 14, 2009 9:45 PM

An hour west of Montreal and you're in Ontario...
Posted by: Kate M. at April 14, 2009 9:46 PM

Mmmm. Now I'm hungry
Posted by: Tim Shore at April 15, 2009 10:11 AM

Sorry, when I said "an hour west of Montreal" I actually meant "a 'Montreal-West' hour west of Montreal" (so, West-Northish-Sorta-Kinda). Make sense? I'm still learning here.
Posted by: Will Shead at April 15, 2009 11:09 AM

I'd just like to say that I'm loving 'The Smoked Meat Diaries'. Is there any way I can subscribe to it? I want an alert as soon as it comes out! But if I have to check Midnight Poutine all the time, that's fine too.
Posted by: Hadleigh at April 15, 2009 9:09 PM

Hi Hadleigh, thanks for reading. I'm not entirely sure how that can be done. Oh these fandangled contraptions! I suppose you can subscribe to the RSS feed for Margot.
Posted by: Will Shead at April 16, 2009 9:32 AM

Looks like you got a nice plate of food. When I went there recently my group (4 adults and a toddler) was glommed onto a table of two (finishing up) and were further joined by another group (four adults and a couple of kids). We never received any eggs or meatballs. And it was a bit awkward having the food shared sometimes and other times being left on our own to flag down the waiter. They'd put us together with the intention that the food would all get shared, but it didn't work out so great in practice. So I got my fill of sugar but wasn't overly encouraged to thing a return trip would be in order.
Posted by: Sean at April 16, 2009 1:07 PM

I just got back from a lacklustre Cabane a sucre outside of Ottawa. We did manage to hit a nice one near St. Sauveur a few weeks ago though (name escapes me).
Still, I can't believe that someone ever had the idea from looking at the clear water-like substance that is sap to say "hey, wait, I could put this stuff through and incredibly laborious heating process, boil and evaporate out the waste and create syrupy goodness. Then I could put that syrup on everything I eat and it will automatically make it 300 times better."
Seriously. I don't think sausages, pancakes and butter realize how much they owe maple syrup.
Posted by: Jer at April 17, 2009 11:27 AM
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