Spring, sweet spring

Rene Bruemmer
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The sap has started to run and the sugar shacks are open

There is something deliciously Quebecois in the low-key and friendly annual rite of passage known as sugaring off. Even in a packed dining hall serving food that requires a good shot of syrup to improve palatability, it is the historic, communal nature of the experience that makes it special.

To dine amid the maples from a menu that includes the gloriously absurd concoction of fried lard, an invention only a cardiologist in need of work could come up with, is to share in a cultural experience that was recorded more than 400 years ago by French explorers. They learned it from the aboriginal, who use to plunge a tomahawk into the sugar maple and collect the sweet, watery sap in buckets made from bark. The sap was then boiled down into golden nectar.

There is something deliciously Quebecois in the low-key and friendly annual rite of passage known as sugaring off. Even in a packed dining hall serving food that requires a good shot of syrup to improve palatability, it is the historic, communal nature of the experience that makes it special.

To dine amid the maples from a menu that includes the gloriously absurd concoction of fried lard, an invention only a cardiologist in need of work could come up with, is to share in a cultural experience that was recorded more than 400 years ago by French explorers. They learned it from the aboriginal, who use to plunge a tomahawk into the sugar maple and collect the sweet, watery sap in buckets made from bark. The sap was then boiled down into golden nectar.

Sugaring off became tradition when syrup producers would invite friends and family over to share the bounty after 40 litres of watery sap had been reduced to a litre of syrup. Friends would bring beans, bread and ham to supplement the meal, and a traditional feast and festival was born.

Quebec producers account for nearly 80 per cent of the world's supply of maple syrup, producing close to 100 million pounds of syrup each year and raising $136 million for local coffers, according to the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers. Today, there are about 7,500 producers in Quebec and 450 sugar shacks where people can feast, dance and listen to traditional Quebec music.

A friend and I and our four young boys decided to give the Sucrerie de Bouvrette in St. Jerome a try, enticed by the fact it was only a 40-minute drive from Montreal and featured a miniature steam train that wends its way through the sugaring off facilities and forest. The Bouvrette sugar shack operation, in its 63rd year, is a collection of orange-roofed wooden buildings, including an interpretation centre showing how the sugar is boiled down, a farm building with petting zoo, and a dining room that was simultaneously cheap and charming - its dark wood interior masking the fact you're eating off plastic plates on top of plastic tablecloths. We were there on their opening weekend, and the 250-person dining room was about 75-per-cent full, mostly with families. The food was endless: pickled onions, pickled beets, pickled pickles, pea soup, baked beans, coleslaw, hotdogs cooked in maple syrup, eggs cooked in maple syrup, maple smoked ham, potatoes, oreilles de crisses (pork rinds) plus pancakes and sugar pie for dessert. And the piece de resistance, an oven-baked omelette that looks more like a cake, light and fluffy, perfectly covered with a layer of syrup.

As always when accompanied by two young boys who knock over full cups of milk and fight while my friend's boys are annoyingly angelic, the meal was not exactly relaxing. But to be served in the company of 200 happy diners revelling in a tradition dating back hundreds of years, by a motherly waitress with a majestic purple permanent, is special. One of the owners told me they will serve close to 20,000 people in the six weeks or so that the sugaring off season lasts.

After lunch, we headed out to take the eight-minute train ride through the forest, a highlight for the boys, even though there isn't much to see, and get some syrup on snow, another highlight, and play in the kids park. The setting near an industrial park detracted somewhat from the charm, but the kids liked the train and the outing. We left stuffed, and happy we came.

Cabane À Sucrerie de Bouvrette, 1000 Nobel St. in St. Jerome, is a 40-minute drive from Montreal. Take Highway 15 North to Exit 39 East. Take a left on Sir Wilfrid Laurier, and a right on Nobel, about a kilometre down the road. Rates for adults range between $13 and $20, depending on when you go. It's $8 for kids 6-12, $5 for those 5 and younger. For reservations, call 450-438-4659. More info: www.bouvrette.ca.

There are numerous sugaring-off sites around Montreal that offer everything from a spa treatment and gourmet sugar shack meals to line dancing and singles nights. For a list of Quebec's sugar shack operations, go to www.laroutedessucres.com or www.cabaneasucre.org.

Sucrerie de la Montagne

Located in Rigaud, this 48-hectare sugar shack, now in its 30th year of operation, has been designated an official Quebec Heritage Site. It offers horse-drawn sleigh rides, cross-country ski trails, singing and dancing to traditional music, log-cabin accommodations and visits to its sugaring off facilities, where the sap is still collected the old fashioned way in buckets and boiled down over a wood-burning stove.

Getting there: take Highway 40 West toward Ottawa, then Exit 17. Turn left on Montee Lavigne for two kilometres, then right at St. Georges Rd., go for six kilometres. Sucrerie de la Montagne is on the right, at 300 Rang St. Georges. It's about an hour from Montreal. Cost: 13 and older, $25 to $29.50; kids 7-12, $15-$16; children 3-6, $9-$10. For reservations, call 450-451-0831. More info: www.sucreriedelamontagne.com.

Erabliere au Sous-Bois

A massive sugar shack that offers both DJ music seven days a week, and hikes in pedestrian paths at nearby Mont St. Gregoire, good for working up an appetite. The food here also has a good reputation.

Getting there: take Highway 10 East to Exit 37, follow the signs for Erablieres of Mont St. Gregoire, head to 164 Chemin du Sous-Bois Mont St. Gregoire. About 30 minutes from Montreal. Cost: 16 years and older, $15 to $19.25, taxes included; children $5.50 to $8. For reservations, call 450-460-4069 or 450-460-2269. More info: www.cabaneasucre.com.

Organizations: Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers, Quebec Heritage Site

Geographic location: Quebec, Montreal, Sous-Bois Mont St. Gregoire Rigaud Ottawa

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