To mark Canada 150, Globe Style's Clearly Canadian series explores iconic examples of domestic design. A twist of fate, Nathalie Atkinson discovers, means the mystery artist behind the graphic design on cans of Quebec maple syrup is the original Anonymous
The Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers (FPAQ) was formed in 1966. It regulates the industry, enforces quality compliance and standards for the province's 7,300 bulk producers (that's 43 million taps) and maintains the Global Strategic Maple Syrup Reserve. A 2016 Vanity Fair article about the reserve argued FPAQ is more powerful than OPEC – and the author was only half-joking. The Federation sets quotas that control supply and in turn stabilize pricing (infamously enough that a syrup reserve heist became the plot point of an episode of Elementary that aired in January). The charming maple syrup can isn't just a sacred cow, it's a cash cow. Quebec maple syrup accounts for more than 72 per cent of the world's production.
Maple sap is boiled to 66 degrees Brix to become syrup, then sterilized and packaged at 85 C. It's a bit like putting up jam. Hermetically sealed metal cans protect the flavour and hygiene, and give syrup a significantly longer shelf life.
According to FPAQ spokesperson Caroline Cyr, the design of the iconic can dates back to 1951 when canning maple syrup was a relatively new method. In an effort to promote it to farmers, Quebec's Ministry of Agriculture held a province-wide call for packaging designs. This winning entry went into production and has been lithographed on thousands of cans ever since, but the winner's information was lost. The identity of the artist (and his or her medium) will be a mystery for the ages – like trying to ascertain who gets the credit/blame for inventing poutine. Each manufacturer of maple syrup equipment has its own artwork designs, and this one is managed by canning supplier Dominion & Grimm.
The use of the ridged can is synonymous with how Quebec producers prefer to store their liquid gold. (New England favours tin flasks, whereas Ontario prefers glass bottles or plastic jugs.) The Federation recently surveyed its members about packaging and 70 per cent opted to keep the can.
The familiar red, white and sky blue graphic hits a few grace notes. Although most production is now streamlined with state-of-the-art tubing systems, it's emblematic of nostalgic "le temps des sucres." In the foreground of a Quebec sugarbush winter scene, a farmer of indeterminate gender in barn jacket and cap collects sap by hand from a pail. Behind sits a red-roofed cabane à sucre and a traditional horse-drawn sleigh. A red label placed at a jaunty angle uses a homey cursive script to proclaim the contents, and the design incorporates a blank spot where producers can affix their label. It predates a similarly world-famous wintry pastoral motif – Johnson Brothers "The Friendly Village" tableware – by two years.
Once the syrup is consumed, the can can enjoy a trendy after-life repurposed as a vessel for poured candles or as an evocative pencil holder. The Drake General Store in Toronto uses the design on decorative Canadiana cushions and, for the past several years, well-known Montreal street artist WIA (a.k.a. Whatisadam) has interpreted it in a Pop Art vein as his "Maple Sizzurp" riff on silkscreen prints, socks and stained glass.