Wednesday, January 29, 2014

a syrupy day at the sugar shack

Maple syrup is big business in Québec, supplying 80% of the world’s demand for this golden syrup. The syrup isn’t cheap, with prices of about $40 per gallon -- or about $10.50 per litre for those of us living in the metric world. A band of thieves clearly thought it was valuable enough to steal $30 million worth of maple syrup in late 2012 from a reserve controlled by a Canadian maple syrup quasi-cartel, which in turn inspired the late night shows to crack jokes at the so-called cartels.

I, for one, have not contributed much to the maple syrup industry. I’m a sorry excuse for a sweet tooth. I didn’t grow up eating a lot of sweets, I can only vaguely remember one occasion in my younger days when I had pancakes with maple syrup -- during a holiday trip to America (I think). But my lack of sweet-tooth-iness by no means dampened my enthusiasm for my then impending visit to a sugar shack.

I first learned about this great Québecois tradition of sugaring off time from a NY Times article. I encourage you to read the article, if not for the power of persuasion that can make you want to book a flight to Québec right now, then to see the differences between the magazine’s experience to my commoner’s experience at the Sucrerie de la Montagne. The article did a much better job than I can ever hope to do in explaining the history of this particular sugar shack and its uniqueness. It’s an evocative read to say the least.

My journey began with a rainy drive from Montreal to Rigaud. When we arrived an hour later, we were one of the earlybirds, the car park was half full, the rain has stopped, the smell of petrichor is in the air. The horse drawn carriage wasn’t ready for us yet. Not knowing where to go, we followed the crowd with a leisurely walk towards the compound. All around us, mums, dads, kids, couples, grandpas, grandmas were excited for the day’s festivities ahead.

While waiting for the ticket counter to open, we walked towards the tall maple trees with sap dripping into its respective buckets, and there we were, standing away from the crowd, simply enjoying the beauty of the sugarbush. We quietly observed that we were the only people of asian descent that day. We did feel somewhat out of place. There was a few inquisitive glances here and there, always the respectful kind though, not in anyway malicious. It actually made us feel that we were taking part in something authentic and special.

We went into the shack that held the évaporateur a few times. A man, who looked like a retired lumberjack, was attending to the syrup boiler (The owner on the other hand looked like Father Christmas). He was busy talking to visitors in French about what I presumed how the maple sap is boiled down to syrup. As most visitors were French speakers, I waited until the crowd thinned out so I won’t feel as bad when asking for the explanation in English. When I eventually did, the lumberjack was nothing but courteous, he explained to me why there’s a piece of bacon hanging off the boiler; and after noticing I had a serious looking camera, he even insisted that I take a picture of the burning wood that was heating up the tank.

Satisfied with the chat, we moved on to the bakery to whet our appetite before partaking in the feast. We spent close to half an hour watching the deft hands of the two bakers, kneading and rolling, to make cinnamon & raisin scrolls and buns. Since these pastries weren’t in the menu of the feast and I don’t know why, I sadly didn’t get to taste how delicious it would be.

The feast was held in the main hall, named Salle Orignal (Moose Room), it was dim and intimate, decked simply with a few strings of twinkly lights. The wooden tables were decorated with twigs of wispy wild flowers and not much else. The crowd chatter intermingled with the country, folky French songs performed by the four-person band. The food was a farm style buffet. Our female attendant, who was the sweetest, firstly apologised if her English wasn’t adequate, then went on to explain that they will serve an order of the Festin du temps des sucres, consisting of thirteen dishes such as oreilles de crisse (crispy-fried pork rinds) and jambon au sucre du pays (sugar-cured country ham). And if we want another order of any of the menu items, we can ask her at any point in time, and they would be free of charge. My favourite was the soupe au pois du Montagnard, a bowl of warming pea soup, which I think was made with yellow split peas. The tourtière de la beauceronne – meat pie from Québec’s Beauce region -- was not like any pie I’ve ever had before. The tarte au sucre -- sugar pie -- was entirely too sweet for me. The crêpes avec sirop d'érable -- pancake with maple syrup -- was better, because control of how much syrup I wanted is in my hands.

When we finished our meal, as we were listening to the band, I thought to myself, “This was a good day”. The mood in the dining room was jovial, not raucous. Everyone was cordial. During the feast, we eagerly obliged a man with a kind smile who offered to take a picture of us without my asking, isn’t that sweet of him…

We ended this already sweet day with making our own maple taffy on a stick before riding a horse-drawn carriage back to our car.

Sucrerie de la Montagne on Urbanspoon
Sucrerie de la Montagne
300, chemin Saint-Georges
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