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A resident of Phwa Saw village, in the central Myanmar region of Bagan, enjoys a large cheroot. Elders can be seen smoking the massive cigars, but visitors are more likely to see locals chewing betel nut, which stains the lips bright red. (Wency Leung/The Globe and Mail/Wency Leung/The Globe and Mail)
A resident of Phwa Saw village, in the central Myanmar region of Bagan, enjoys a large cheroot. Elders can be seen smoking the massive cigars, but visitors are more likely to see locals chewing betel nut, which stains the lips bright red. (Wency Leung/The Globe and Mail/Wency Leung/The Globe and Mail)

Why settle for maple when you could have birch syrup? Add to ...

Move aside, maple. The latest flavour to tap is birch.

From birch syrup to birch beer to cooking with birch wood, chefs and gourmets are experimenting with various ways to bring the astringent flavour from the forest to the dinner table.

Birch syrup made by producer Érablière Escuminac (based in Sainte-Rita, Que.) was named one of the top 10 winning products of the annual Trends & Innovations Awards at last month's SIAL Canada international food trade show in Toronto. The product was chosen as it's a refreshing ingredient that can be used in both sweet and savoury dishes, says Isabelle Marquis, director of XTC North America, which tracks and analyzes food trends and innovations. XTC is also a partner company of the SIAL trade show, and Ms. Marquis was involved with the organization and judging of the awards.

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"It's interesting to take something from nature and to create just a new way to see it and make it very refined," Ms. Marquis says, noting that several restaurants in Toronto are now using Érablière Escuminac's birch syrup for glazing meats and drizzling on desserts. The syrup is darker in colour and has a subtler aroma than maple, but a sharp, sweet taste.



Consuming birch, of course, is nothing new. Birch has long been used in first nations cookery, its sap consumed as medicine, and the wood used for smoking meats and fish. But thanks to a renewed interest in foraged foods, birch is finally getting its moment in the culinary spotlight. Danish superstar chef René Redzepi of the internationally renowned Copenhagen restaurant Noma is perhaps the biggest champion of using birch products as an ingredient, incorporating them into dishes like bouillon of steamed birch wood (made by boiling wood and macerating the branches), birch wood dessert (which involves a sorbet created with simmered wood), and steamed egg white and birch wine with wild mushrooms.

It's not only those into fine dining who are acquiring a taste for birch. Jennifer Brady, in charge of marketing at Hank's Beverage Company (based in Trevose, Pa.), says her company's birch beer is gaining popularity. The non-alcoholic pop, which is distributed in Canada, has been a favourite in the northeastern United States, particularly Philadelphia and New York, for years, she says, but demand for the product is growing throughout Canada and the U.S. Ms. Brady describes the taste as very similar to root beer, but the addition of birch oil gives it a distinct aroma akin to wintergreen.

"Birch beer's got a little bit more kick," Ms. Brady says. "Once people try it - once they, I guess, understand what it is - they really like it."

Érablière Escuminac's birch syrup can be purchased at specialty food shops and online at www.escuminac.com.

Follow on Twitter: @wencyleung

 

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