They still do it the old-fashioned way at this cabane à sucre from yesteryear, where the trees are tapped by hand, the sap collected in metal buckets emptied by men in snowshoes and distilled down to a sweet maple essence over a wood fire stoked in a 19th-century cabin.
Ronald Castonguay, the owner of Sucrerie d’antan (literally “sugar shack from yesteryear”), retreats to his small modern kitchen, where he alone will bake bread to prepare for weekend crowds of 50 or 60 who will consume his feast of eggs and ham and pork rinds – all doused in his own syrup.
This all may sound typical for the annual rite of spring as the sap begins to flow in Quebec’s vast maple forests, but it hasn’t been the true experience for most Quebeckers in a long time. While there are still a few artisanal sugar shacks clinging to small-scale tradition, the vast majority of people who soak their sweet tooth this spring will stream into vast dining halls that can seat thousands over a single weekend, and where the bulk of the syrup is produced off site.
At most of those so-called shacks, petting zoos for the kids are mandatory. A few of them resemble carnivals, with roller-coasters, train rides and bumper cars. A handful of smaller, exclusive cabanes, such as the one run by celebrity chef Martin Picard, offer gourmet menus that ricochet off the traditional meal of grand-pères (dumplings boiled in syrup) and sugar pie into a fine-dining experience, with foie gras slipped into the pea soup and pancakes.
Even in this Quebec tradition that dates back hundreds of years, there is no escaping the laws of economics that dictate that size and specialization are keys to profit.
Maple syrup production is now big business, with quotas to fill and tens of thousands of dollars in equipment required to run kilometres of plastic tubing from trees to modern boilers running on oil or gas. Most sugar shacks are now major restaurants with commercial kitchens, dozens of staff and regular government inspections, and high standards for everything from the sprinkler system to the coolers to the cash register.
The result is that few of the province’s 7,400 maple syrup producers bother with the hassle of running a public sugar shack. And while most of the 400 sugar shacks produce some syrup, it’s largely for show as they truck in the vast quantities needed to feed the masses.
“I certainly don’t do both for the money – I do it because I love it,” said Mr. Castonguay, 65, a cook by trade who retired from teaching six years ago. He relies on the volunteer labour of his retired friends to collect and boil sap while he cooks for his modest weekend crowds.
Just how big a business production is became clear with Quebec’s great maple syrup heist, where thousands of barrels were carted off from a “strategic reserve” used to stabilize prices for producers. The crime, since solved, triggered joy among headline writers and even got a segment on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show.
Cabane à sucre Paquette sits on the outskirts of Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines, about 45 minutes north of Montreal, and owner Mario Paquette offers a typical modern experience. His dining hall, medium-sized for the industry, can seat up to 600. He has the petting zoo. He taps his red maple trees, which produce some syrup but nowhere near the quantities needed to feed one weekend sitting.
“It’s getting pretty rare to do both,” said Mr. Paquette, who in 1973 started working at the cabane his father started. “The little guys are also getting rare. It used to be people would do it as a sideline, to make a few dollars.”
In late 2011, a new Quebec law forced all of the province’s restaurants with more than $200,000 in sales to install government-certified cash registers. Suddenly small eateries could no longer hide even modest profits. “The taxman is taking care of what’s left of the little guys,” Mr. Paquette said.
Faced with the prospect of the need to grow or go out of business, Mr. Paquette and his father expanded his hall several times over the decades. The space can be divided, so Mr. Paquette has had a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a gay and lesbian club and a biker gang (he would later learn) booked at the same time. “The Jehovah’s didn’t care for having the lesbians next door, but it was fine,” he said.
But even Mr. Paquette’s larger operation can only support a handful of full-time, permanent employees. The majority of the dozens of older women and teenagers who rush about in traditional skirts and the ceinture fléchée sash are part-time, seasonal workers.
An hour west of Montreal, Mr. Castonguay describes how he caught the “maple bug” when he was a teenager. One late winter he and a friend tromped out to his grandfather’s untapped trees, built a fire and boiled their own syrup. “We didn’t know what we were doing. It was black, but delicious,” he said.
The ex-chef, who worked as a cook at the Banff Springs Hotel before turning to teaching in the 1980s, is now looking for the exit. He’d like to sell, but he’s not sure what his shack, with his house nearby, surrounded by a kilometre of forest, is worth.
While he watches his four retiree friends wrestle a 50-gallon drum of sap from a trailer into the cook shack, he adds that any new buyer will likely concentrate on the restaurant business, which has room to grow. “I don’t have any more trees,” he says. “Doing syrup this way is a lot of work.”