Sugar Shack 101
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You’ve most probably heard of sugar shacking, that mysterious springtime activity we in the northeastern part of the American continent partake in every year? If you’ve ever wondered what a “cabane à sucre” or sugar shack really is and what really happens at these most festive gatherings, read on.
Sugar shacks are popular in the northeast because of Mother Nature, basically. You see, sugar maple trees love cold winters and in order for the sap to flow in the spring, the trees need cold nights and warm sunny days, which is exactly what we have here in Québec. Fun fact: Canada produces about 80 per cent of the world’s pure maple syrup, and Québec alone makes up over 90 % of the country’s production. In 2016 alone, Québec produced approximately 71.4% of the global production (source: FPAQ). And we make the best maple syrup in the world!
A little history
Let’s start with a little history lesson, shall we? Settlers observed indigenous peoples making maple sugar every spring for use as a high-caloric food that would get them through the tough winter months. With the help of their technology, the settlers improved on the primitive process of tapping maple trees and making crystallized maple sugar, which was the preferred method of conserving the precious sap (syrup was only introduced later). The sugar was then broken down into slices and melted or shaved directly over dishes.
What to eat at a sugar shack
Maple, of course! Or more precisely, all the foods drowned in maple syrup! A sugar shack meal is no small affair and you have to be fully prepared to indulge in a rich, delicious, maple-laden meal that will leave you feeling full and absolutely satisfied. A word of advice: pace yourself if you want to make it to the end of the meal. This is a marathon not a sprint, so eat small quantities of each dish and don’t fill up on bread.
Every cabane à sucre meal starts with a hearty bowl of yellow pea soup flavoured with a ham hock. The soup is usually followed by a myriad of traditional savoury dishes such as baked ham, omelette or scrambled eggs, sausages, tourtière (Québec’s famous meat pie), baked beans, cretons (a pork-based pâté of sorts) and oreilles de crisse, which translates literally into “Christ’s ears” and is actually deep-fried pork rinds. Yum! All of these dishes are either cooked with maple or dowsed in the golden syrup. It’s actually an absolute must to drizzle syrup on everything, even your bread and butter.
Sugar shack desserts include items such as maple sugar pie, maple donuts, pancakes and a variety of toothachingly sweet stuff. However, the best part of the whole extravaganza is definitely the maple taffy. At the end of the meal, warm maple syrup is poured on fresh snow in perfect little rows. The idea is to let the liquid syrup set a bit in the snow then to roll it around a popsicle stick and enjoy like a lollipop. Kids and adults of all ages enjoy this ritual the best and no sugar shack meal is complete without it.
What to do at a sugar shack
Other than eating, what is there to do at a sugar shack, you ask? Well, it depends on the sugar shack. Many shacks in Québec are family-owned and still small to medium sized, although you will find huge commercial ones as well. Some of the more traditional things to do are horse or tractor-drawn wagon or sleigh rides of the property and all the tapped maple trees, walks or hikes in the woods, traditional music and dancing, petting zoos, snowshoeing and spending time learning and observing the maple syrup making process. You can choose from a range of larger dining halls to the cozier, smaller cabins, depending on the kind of experience you are looking for and how big your group is.
Where to go for the ultimate sugar shack experience
There are so many different kinds of sugar shacks out there that it’s sometimes hard to find one that suits your taste. Most shacks are located where the maple trees are obviously, so outside the city. We do have a few favourites that we can recommend from the traditional Sucrerie de la Montagne to the more contemporary Érablière Shefford and the over-the-top Au pied de cochon, which is, unfortunately, often fully booked. If you can’t get out of the city come springtime, several urban sugar shacks have sprung up around town in the past few years that will satisfy tat maple craving after a long winter. Whatever you decide though, make sure to book ahead. This most-beloved gargantuan gastronomic experience is only around for a few weeks every year, from late February to April, and shacks everywhere sell out quickly.
For a sugaring off experience with a fresh twist, Labonté de la pomme offers the first Apple Shack in Québec, featuring local products and baked treats prepared in a wood-fired oven. This family-run orchard in Oka, about a 45-minute drive from Montréal, offers lots of family activities year-round and a General Store where you can pick up gourmet gifts. The Apple Shack is open for sugaring-off time in March and April, a Mother’s Day Brunch during apple blossom season and for gourmet brunches and dinners from mid-August to the end of October.
Mayssam Samaha, blogger
Mayssam Samaha is a food and travel writer and blogger. She travels the world in search of the next culinary discovery. From Iceland to South Africa, she’s already visited over 30 countries and there’s nothing she enjoys more than wandering around a farmers’ market in a foreign city.