Spring is in the air, and with it comes one of the most well-established traditions in Quebec: the annual visit to the cabane à sucre, or sugar shack. It is an opportunity to gather with friends and family to indulge the sweet tooth with dishes complemented by maple syrup.
The traditional sugar shack is family-owned and furnished with long tables where everyone can just sit back and enjoy the food.
When I was a kid, the sap was transported using large barrels pulled by horses and brought to the shack for processing. Times have changed, and the production methods have been streamlined, but the basics remain the same: Sap must first be collected and boiled to obtain pure syrup.
To celebrate the sugaring-off season at Toqué!, we serve our version of a maple sponge toffee, en mignardise.
When my friend Martin Picard tried it, he liked it so much he could not resist asking for our recipe. You see, Martin has recently opened his very own cabane à sucre. And, it is fair to say, it is an upscale version of the traditional sugar shack.
The philosophy behind his new project is the same that made the success of his restaurant Au Pied de Cochon: Applying modern cooking techniques, he revisits classic Québécois dishes with high-quality ingredients, locally grown food when possible - and he adds foie gras. Lots of it!
At Cabane à sucre Au Pied de Cochon, he serves delicious dishes such as mackerel omelette, duck magret, oreilles de criss salad and meat pie in a casual family style with a cartful of different plates that everyone can share.
It's not the classic menu most sugar shacks offer, but it's original, delicious and still celebrates maple syrup in most of the dishes.
Martin calls maple syrup his favourite product, and he uses it accordingly! I am quite proud of his contribution to the Quebec culinary scene: After spending many years working in different restaurants, he finally got the confidence to open his own place and to do things his way.
And isn't this what great restaurants should be about? To offer diverse and creative options to clients willing to try different culinary experiences, from the most traditional food cooked in maple syrup to the maple sponge toffee, en mignardise. All authentic. All good.
Maple sponge toffee
450 grams organic sugar
100 millilitres maple syrup
350 millilitres water
2 teaspoons baking soda
Line a metal mould with parchment paper and set aside. In a pot, cook sugar, syrup and water together. When the temperature reaches 150 C, whisk in baking soda until well incorporated and pour into mould. Set aside to cool.
Normand Laprise is co-owner and head chef of Toqué! in Montreal