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April 17, 2015

Discover Sugar Shack Meals and Maple Tasting Menus in Quebec

I visited Quebec during maple season and received a full tour of all things maple, from pure Canadian maple products and innovative meals prepared by Maple Masters to the unforgettable experience of eating at sugar shacks and sucking on maple taffy. Join me on this adventure!

When you think of Canada, what comes to mind? Snow, trees, hockey or the ever-present motif of the maple leaf? I visited Quebec at the end of March. It was still very cold and snowing, but I was here because it was maple season. As the entire region was eagerly awaiting the sap from the maple trees to start flowing, I received a full-on tour of everything maple. My limited vision of maple syrup being only for pancakes was about to change forever. I didn’t realize how many different types of maple products exist: From maple syrup to maple butter, maple whiskey, maple wine, croissants, pastries and breads with maple cream, maple gelato, maple caramel, maple-covered nuts, maple vinaigrette, maple mustard, maple pearls and of course, maple water. I learned that 91 percent of all Canadian syrup is produced in Quebec, and that’s 71 percent of worldwide production.

You could say I was on a maple high, tasting cuisine and products prepared with maple in every capacity by Maple Masters, an exclusive group of 100 artisans and chefs whose love for maple and use of quality local products is reflected in their innovative menus. These Maple Masters, carefully selected by the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers, create dishes using maple year round. I was impressed by the creativity and the subtlety maple brings to both savory and sweet dishes.

Then there are the sugar shacks! Sugar shacks produce maple syrup and are also famous for their hearty, lumberjack-befitting meals. At a traditional sugar shack, you pile up your plate with ham, egg, potatoes, meatballs, meat pie and sausage and pour a healthy dose of maple syrup all over. You eat family-style, and it’s a grand ol’ time, but make sure you save room for dessert. After the meal, the final treat is the tire sur la neige — maple taffy. Hot maple syrup is poured over ice, and you use a stick to roll it up into a lollipop and suck on it. We also visited a modern artisanal sugar shack, where the split-pea soup was exquisite, eggs were souffléd with cheese curds, and the housemade sausages and piglet jambonneau were delicious. It was a meal to celebrate. And again, the postprandial maple taffy was a highlight. Some sugar shacks run year round for tourism’s sake, but for locals, it’s really only during maple season that one indulges in sugar shack meals.

When is maple season? There are only 25 days out of the year maple trees can be tapped for sap, between March and April. We saw the first slow drips of sap from a tree one day, and everyone was excited that it meant maple season was truly upon us. You see here two different methods of extracting sap: the traditional metal spiles and buckets, and the newer tubing system that uses vacuum technology and a Wi-Fi tracking system. This modern method extracts up to five times as much sap from a tree compared with the traditional method. It takes 40 liters of sap to make one liter of syrup.

My discovery of maple culinary arts has me excited to return for sugar shack meals and Maple Master tasting menus. From March to the end of May is the time to experience maple in all its glory in Quebec.