Day Five: Celebrate Sugaring-off

Here they are - all Five Crazy Things to do in a Canadian Winter by someone who has done them. I didn't research these on the internet - I did them and I had a ball!

Just a little further and it's all mine.

In the dying days of winter you can join in one of Quebec's best traditions and celebrate the maple syrup harvest at Sugaring Off. Like all good traditions it involves music, dancing and food - lots of food. Sugaring Off is an annual festival to celebrate the beginning of Spring and usually occurs in late March and early April. This is the time when the days finally start to warm up but it remains below freezing at night. These are perfect conditions for collecting sap from maple trees. But the combination of the weather pattern and plentiful supply of maples is not found in many places. Quebec produces more than 75pc of the world's supply.
Liquid syrup rolled on snow turns to toffee.
Maple trees store sugar in their roots for the winter and the warmer weather causes the sap to rise. Wily Canadians have learned to drain this by placing a spigot or spout into the tree. There are all sorts of stories about how First Nations people may have discovered maple syrup. One says a women found a pot of liquid under a maple tree and assumed it was water. She used it to cook meat but found it had a sweet flavour. That's because the liquid was maple sap which had dripped out of the tree when an axe had been stuck there for the night. The sweet liquid tasted so good that the rest is history. As my British friend once said to me, "You mean this stuff grows on trees?"
The fireplace in our cabin at Sucrerie de la Montagne.
I have some first hand knowledge of all this lark as some of my Canadian family have been making their own syrup in the Laurentians for more than 20 years. They are not alone. Aside from syrup farmers many Quebeckers keep up the tradition of tapping their trees and boiling up the liquid for their own supplies. It is something that has been done for generations and it's great to see the old fashioned techniques still being used today. While modern farmers use plastic tubing to collect the sap many locals still use the old metal buckets hanging on the trees.  Often complete strangers will stop when they see the sugary steam rising from the boiling syrup in the sugar shack- it holds a fascination for young and old.
Our sugaring-off meal arrives. 
There are many sugar shacks or cabane a sucres in the province of  Quebec where you can go to celebrate Sugaring-Off. The meal consists of (vegetarians look away now)  pea soup, tourtiere (Quebec meat pie), sausages in syrup, maple-smoked ham, meatballs, omelette, mashed potato, feves au lard (baked beans cooked with salt pork and syrup) and the weirdly-named oreilles de crisse (literally Christ's ears but actually, deep fried pork rinds). I ate mine at the Sucrerie de la Montagne in Rigaud, Quebec where they not only offer the feast but accommodation in the form of authentic rustic cabins. If conditions are right you can ski or snowshoe to neighbouring sugar shacks here. The place is owned by Pierre Faucher, know locally as the Santa Claus guy, because of his big bushy white beard. He also offers horse-drawn sleigh rides on the property and there is often live music and traditional dancing as part of Sugaring-Off.
Buckets collect sap in front of the oldest cabin.
The cabins available for rent are part of a Quebecois village, complete with local store and bakery, which were dismantled and reassembled here to look as a community might have done 200 years ago. Some of cabins can take up to 16 guests. The Maisonette D'Amour or Love Shack (above) sleeps two. We were in the Woodsman's Cabin with an impressive stone fireplace and beds made from hewn logs. Extremely cosy especially if you sleep in the bed in the living room near the fire.
Francois Beliveau collects sap using new technology.
Nearby you can visit the St Henri Erabliere where lots of locals were having lunch. My favourite oreilles des crisse were served here and you can go and see the giant evaporator boiling up all the sap in the back of shop. Owner Francois proudly showed me his syrup-making operation (above) which is completely modernised. Plastic tubes connect all the trees and the sap is pumped through the forest into this tank near his restaurant. As we made our way through the snowy forest we could hear the sap pumping through the tubes. He told us it takes 40 litres of sap to make one litre of syrup and he produces 25,000 litres from his 33,000 trees every year.
Oreilles de Crisse at St Henri Erabliere.
Also in the neighbourhood you can visit the Auberge des Gallant which offers a more upmarket maple experience at dinner as well its own sugar shack cafe selling maple products and homemade tourtieres. There is a spa where you can have maple treatments applied to your skin if you're bored with eating them. Once relaxed you can try the excellent maple tasting menu and from the restaurant you can watch deer feeding in the woods. I had pan-fried sweetbread in maple liquor, arctic char with Jack Daniels and maple creme brulee. You cannot leave without trying another local speciality, ice cider, made from apples picked frozen from the tree. (More of this in weeks to come)
Checking for sap.
There's something very special about this winter adventure - watching maple syrup boiling in the pan and joining in the sugaring-off party. Quebec is one of the best places in the world to see this harvest taking place - and it's a short one. It can start as early as February but it is usually all over my mid-April. But best of all you can join in the celebrations that another long winter is nearly over and see the joy on the faces of Canadians that Spring has finally arrived. Winter is fun but summer's pretty good here too. Read another winter adventure.

Is this the Canadian capital of winter?
See more photos of sugaring-off on the Dear England, Love Canada Facebook page.
Eating tire or maple toffee lollies.
Sounds fun but what does it cost?
Dinner, bed and breakfast at Sucrerie de la Montagne $135 per adult.
Sleigh ride, tour and feast only: from $26
Auberge des Gallant: Maple gastronomic menu $59

Where can I find out more?

Where can I see more?

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  1. Mmmmm, my family loves maple syrup. Thanks for letting us see how it is made!

  2. Kate in Bahrain
    You're welcome. When you taste the homemade stuff you really are in heaven. I had no idea bout the process until I moved to Quebec. Maple syrup capital of the world.

  3. I haven't had maple syrup in years. Last time I had it I was about 10 and thought it was totally disgusting. But - after reading this, I am willing to give it another shot.

  4. You can always have the deep fried pork rinds instead? I was brought up on Golden Syrup and maple syrup is darker and naughtier somehow. Poured over French toast and bacon is my favourite way to have it.
    The sugaring-off feast had something on the menu called Mountaineer's Pea Soup which doesn't translate somehow, if you get my drift.

  5. Cross-country skiing to the sugar shack sounds like a great way to pre-burn the calories!

  6. It's a theory yes but beware how much food they serve you. Plus there is a jug of syrup at every meal to pour over your sausages,etc. I was told of syrup drinking competitions among staff at one establishment. These people are obsessed!

  7. It always shocks me at how few Canadiana activities I'm participated in, maybe because I hate winter. But that looks like a lot of fun, especially the eating!

  8. Well you have so many Canadian experiences here - it's difficult to keep up. But eating, yes, we all enjoy that one. It's a classic.
    PS not sure how many essentially British things I ever did in Britain.

  9. This post was very interesting. And you already have snow in Quebec!

  10. Well we had snow in Montreal at Halloween but it melted quickly and it's been more or less dry, sunny and warm since then. Only in the last couple of days has the temperature dropped. It's -4C today and snow forecast for tomorrow and Friday. Yippee.

  11. Hi Anne,

    I just found your blog ! I LOOOOOOOOOVE it !
    And the sugaring off reminds me of 2 weeks ago when I was in Montreal. It was my first experience in a cabane à sucre... well not the last one !

    Yesterday I told my Canadian husband that we will try the one in Rigaud, and today in find your blog.. it is a sign. I HAVE TO GO THERE !
    Moving to Beaconsfield (West Island) in June from Switzerland, we'll be reading you for sure !


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