The Arctic may be melting and prairie grassland birds disappearing, but in the eastern Laurentians of Quebec, the sap runs as usual. That is, unpredictably.
Making maple syrup is a hurry-up-and-wait business, which may explain the other activities traditionally associated with the process – eating, drinking, singing and socializing in the warm, steamy world of the sugar shack.
You could get your favourite maple syrup at a grocer or farmers' market, or you could head into the bush to see, smell and taste the process for yourself. Our sugar shack visit was a happy accident: We had rented a cabin beside a small, unpopulated lake on a hilltop an hour and half north of Montreal last April – fortuitously, the same week the sap ran.
The sap is capricious, and flows only when weather conditions are exactly right: nights below freezing combined with warm sunny days. Then, when the sap runs, everybody else has to run too, working to keep up with the flow.
Normally, we miss the action, renting here in the summer when the road from our cabin to the cabane à sucre is green and shady. In early spring, though, with two feet of snow still lingering in the woods, it's a pleasant downhill walk through hills covered with elephant-grey trees. Flaps of bark curl off some of the birch. The woods are threaded with an elevated webbing of plastic hoses that carry the sap from the trees through the forest, and down the hill, where the sap gushes into a collector tank outside the sugar shack.
A snowstorm has dusted the muddy road. The ice on the puddles has frozen overnight into delicate circular patterns, like the lines on a topographic map. Now it's melting. The sun is out, the sky is blue, and before I round the corner, I can see the smoke billowing up into the sky.
The Érablière Entrelacs isn't a typical tourist cabane à sucre; rather, it's a family affair. Run by Anne and Arne Moore, with some help from their teenaged children, their sugar shack is exactly that: a weathered barn where sunlight filters through gaps in the walls, and one tattered armchair reveals eight layers of former upholstery. Cans of syrup cool on the counter.
The room is dominated by the boxcar-sized metal évaporateur used to boil the sap down into syrup. In one corner is an old woodstove for tea-making and soup-warming. When the fire under the vats is really stoked, steam and smoke billow out of the chimney and seep through the roof as if the whole place is going up in smoke.
On the day I hung around, they produced 30 gallons of syrup, from sap to crate. The "crop" last year was 225 gallons in all. The profit margin isn't huge, but the satisfaction level is high when you harvest something as pure and pleasurable as maple syrup from your land. The process of turning the watery, faintly sweet sap into the slow-flowing amber syrup is relatively simple, marked by potential panic moments, when the fire can burn too low, the vats can overflow, or the syrup can overcook.
The Moores make two grades, medium and light; the light one is especially coveted, a sort of extra-virgin syrup that is more translucent, with a subtler sweetness.
"You can make the sap more medium," Anne says, "but you can't make it light. It just has to come that way."
When I step into the shack, all I can see is billowing steam and smoke and all I can hear is bubbling and the roar and snap of the wood fire burning under the vats. Arne and his son, Daniel, are working at a counter with a Dickensian machine that seals the lids onto the filled cans of syrup. A piece of cardboard is pinned to one wall, with columns of pencilled numbers on it; they have to keep track of when they last stoked the fire, so the heat stays consistent.
Daniel stands on a ledge and peers down into the steamy vats. The steam and smoke contribute to a dark-satanic-mill sort of atmosphere, except that the radio on the counter is tuned to a CBC interview with a novelist, and Daniel and Arne are not very satanic. Every 20 minutes, they add more wood, opening the black door to the firebox where a fan keeps the fire burning at a hellacious level. The sap is boiled until it hits 7 C, then filtered through cloth cones that remove the "sugar salt" – a fibrous, olive-coloured grit that coats the filters and looks like what you might find in a newborn's diapers. A hydrometer measures the density of the syrup. Every seven minutes they dash outside to empty the collecting tank. In between, they boil, filter, can and label the results, which sell for $10 a can in nearby Entrelacs.
When the cans are sealed, Daniel sticks on the company labels and lines them up on the counternot for the public, and minus the pancakes, beaver tails and bacon. An afternoon in the sugar shack feels like an ideal way to mark the arrival of spring. The pleasure of hanging around the bubbling vats is like sitting around a campfire, several times magnified. It's also a chance to be part of a process that refines everything unique about the surroundings – the air, rain, sun, earth and trees – down to this sweet amber essence. The landscape as liqueur.
We take a dozen cans of syrup home to Toronto. With a little hoarding, our supply will last until spring comes around again.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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Where to sugar off
Sugar Moon Farm Alex MacDonald Road, Earltown (about 90 minutes outside Halifax); 1-866-816-2753; www.sugarmoon.ca. Open weekends for all-day maple breakfast in the log Pancake House, snowshoeing, hiking and more. Also open Tuesday, March 17, through Friday, March 20, for the Nova Scotia March Break.
Village Québécois d'Antan Reservations are required for all-you-can-eat sugar party meals (with French-Canadian pea soup, crispy pork ears, baked beans, dumplings in maple syrup and more), maple toffee on snow, folk music and sleigh rides. 1425 Montplaisir St., Drummondville, Que.; 1-877-710-0267; www.villagequebecois.com.
Sugarbush Maple Syrup Festival The festival, with demonstrations, wagon rides and pancakes, runs from March 6 to April 11 at the Kortright Centre for Conservation and Bruce's Mill Conservation Area (416-667-6299; trca.on.ca/maplesyrup). Kortright Centre for Conservation, 9550 Pine Valley Dr., Woodbridge; Bruce's Mill, 3291 Stouffville Rd., Stouffville.
White Meadows Farm On the Niagara escarpment in Pelham (near St. Catharines), the White Meadows pancake house is open weekends, and every day during the Ontario March Break (March 15 to 19). Come for the hay-wagon rides, self-guided tours with themed and staffed stations on well-groomed trails, a pioneer camp and taffy-making demonstrations. 2519 Effingham St., St. Catharines; 905-682-0642; www.whitemeadowsfarms.com.