When you first arrive at Gereli Farm in Shefford, in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, you catch a whiff of something you can’t quite put a name on. It’s faint at first, and seems to be emanating from a chimney attached to a truss-roofed structure at the end of a dirt road. As you follow its path between a cluster of farmhouses and a corral of cattle, you suddenly find yourself enveloped by the sweet aroma of maple. During a few hectic weeks each spring, it is here, in this sugar shack, where Richard Semmelhaack produces what is arguably the most exclusive maple syrup in the world: Remonte-Pente.
Chefs have exclusive access to the first round of sales – and it’s been sold out since December. Some chefs reserve the following year’s supply immediately upon receiving their order. The syrup has gilded dishes in such high-end restaurants as Daniel, Del Posto and Betony in New York, and Quince in San Francisco.
What makes Remonte-Pente so covetable?
“True dedication, hard work and attention to detail shines through, be it in olive oil, wine or maple syrup,” says Bryce Shuman, the executive chef at Betony. “Remonte-Pente is rich, it has great flavour and it’s perfect for whenever you need to top something off.” (He drizzles Remonte-Pente atop amaranth with espresso yogurt, caramelized banana, spices and maple ice cream.)
Remonte-Pente is the result of a close collaboration between Semmelhaack and Société-Orignal, a Montreal-based distributor. Co-founders Alex Cruz and Cyril Gonzales work with farmers to develop products that are meant to underscore high-quality and esoteric Quebec foods. Remonte-Pente, for instance, isn’t your typical pancake topping: A richly dark caramel colour, it’s thicker and has a higher sugar concentration. By focusing on elements of maple syrup that are usually overlooked, Société-Orignal is not only building a profitable business, but is changing how people think about one of the world’s most remarkable natural food products.
So far, the formula seems to be working. Société-Orignal launched in 2011
with three products. It now sells 25 to 40 each season, including apple vinegar
aged in estate barrels and raw honey made with nectar from wild linden trees.
Société-Orignal’s ability to deliver such idiosyncratic ingredients has afforded
it a cult-like following among chefs. Two months ago, it opened an office in New
York and another in Sept-Îles, Que.
“We believe in the honesty of farming and thus take a very hands-on approach. For us, it’s really important to build a one-on-one relationship that’s intimate,” said Cruz. Both he and Gonzales have been up to Gereli Farm numerous times to help package the syrup. Calling their relationship “brotherly,” Semmelhaack appreciates not having to worry about labelling and marketing his syrup. He can focus on what matters for him: producing it in the time-honoured way.
Quebec produces 94 per cent of Canada’s maple syrup and 77 per cent of the world’s supply, making it the focal point of a $400-million global market. At the centre of this virtual monopoly is the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers. A consortium of more than 7,300 producers, the federation establishes price caps, production levels and manages global marketing initiatives. In return, members receive guaranteed revenues for their maple syrup.
Since 1966, when the federation was first established, the market has shifted from small, independent producers to a one-size-fits-all commodity. Instead of being distinguished by sugar content, taste and texture, syrups from across the province are blended together, stored in metal tanks and sold according to colour. This strips them of their individuality and makes it impossible to define maple syrup by region.
Although a handful of small producers like Semmelhaack have refused to join the federation, they are nonetheless bound by its rules. They cannot, for example, sell maple syrup in containers more than five kilograms.
“Nowadays maple syrup is sold like petrol. Consumers have been taught that
the paler it is, the better it is. The industry is focused on selling quantity,
not quality. I don’t care if my petrol comes from Saudi Arabia or Alberta, but I
do care were my maple syrup comes from,” said Cruz. “Maple syrup should be an
expression of its location. Sap that comes out of a 100-year-old tree in the
Eastern Townships doesn’t taste the same as a 40-year-old Mauricie tree.”
Cruz notes that, at 200 acres and with only 3,000 maple trees on site, Gereli Farm is considered “smaller than small” in the world of syrup production. Semmelhaack sells Remonte-Pente directly to Société-Orignal and prefers to work with the terroir rather than against it. This means using organic farming practices and letting Mother Nature do most of the work.
Maple syrup producers typically use vast systems of vacuums to suck the sap out of the trees. Semmelhaack uses buckets. A small team of farmhands head out into the woods – often accompanied by Sunny, Semmelhaack’s massive Bernese mountain dog – to collect the sap and bring it to the large vats on the upper level of his sugar shack, conveniently located at the edge of the tree line. The sap is then fed through pipes into an evaporator mounted over a wood-burning furnace. Most modern evaporators burn oil and use reverse osmosis to remove water from the sap, but Semmelhaack believes that this eliminates flavour compounds unique to the site of origin. Instead, he fuels the fire with dead wood he gathers year round. It’s a slow, labour-intensive process during which Semmelhaack does not move from the fire’s side.
“If you take all the apples off the same tree and give some of them to me and some to Jamie Oliver, well, you’re not going to get the same pie at the end simply because you used the same ingredients. In that sense, reverse osmosis might be more cost-effective, but it cooks the sap far too quickly to really bring out its true flavour,” he said.
Unlike homogeneous groves of maple trees planted specifically for the production of syrup, the maple trees on his property grow alongside jack pines, balsam firs, birch and mountain ash. According to Semmelhaack, leaves from the different tree variants lower the pH of the soil and heighten its minerality. This makes Remonte-Pente less acidic than most syrups and gives it pronounced notes of caramel, vanilla and brown butter. It also has a distinct peaty flavour thanks to the firewood.
Its most defining feature, however, is the elevated sugar concentration. The industry standard for maple syrup is 66 degrees brix; Remonte-Pente is boiled until it reaches a sugar level of 70 degrees brix. To obtain this mark, 56 litres of sap are needed to produce one litre of syrup (the normal ratio is 40:1). Consequently, a tiny amount of the sweet stuff is produced each season – usually no more than 350 to 500 litres. The last step of the process is a series of blind tastings to select the best lots. Only then is Remonte-Pente bottled and shipped.
“We boil daily and isolate daily flavours. Then we sample the lots and try to showcase the ones that pick our brain. Our goal is to share atypical notes and promote a diversity of flavours,” explained Cruz.
Considering the attention to detail, it’s easy to see why chefs are clamouring to get their hands on it. “It’s quite fun to compare it with more commercially focused syrups,” said John Horne, the executive chef at Canoe in Toronto. “The latter have a very maple-forward taste, whereas with Remonte-Pente, it finishes with the maple flavour. It’s a completely different experience.”
Limited quantities priced at $35 for 500 ml should be available on the Société-Orignal website later this month (societe-orignal.com).