When it boils down to it, everyone loves Quebec maple syrup

Category Dining out, Going out, Lifestyle in Quebec City Date 15/04/2019

Written byTaylor Ireland

Quebec is famous for several things, among them its history, geography and gastronomy. But all of these features have combined to bless the province with the sweetest thing of all – an abundance of maple syrup. Not for nothing is the maple leaf the centrepiece of the flag of Canada, a nation weaned on maple syrup.

The “sugaring off” season is well underway now that spring has reluctantly arrived in Quebec. The province is far and away the main sugar shack to the world. Canada as a whole supplies 80 percent of the global market for maple syrup products; Quebec accounts for more than 90 percent of that.  About 80 percent of all the maple syrup produced in Quebec is exported, with the United States the largest market of the 60 countries served.

The global appetite for Canadian maple products is growing at a strong rate, partly, according to analysts, because of the positive health benefits of the liquid gold as a sweetener compared to regular cane sugar. Some of the figures are stunning. For example, China’s imports of maple products from Canada have jumped about 60 percent since 2012.

There is no direct evidence, but anecdotally it would seem the Chinese market is being driven by the large number of tourists from China visiting Quebec and sampling maple products. Some 120,000 Chinese tourists visited Quebec in 2018, a jump of nearly 40 percent in two years.

Maple syrup has become a huge business in Quebec, a very long way from the folksy image of family sugar bushes with rustic shacks in the woods steaming sweep vapour in the frosty spring air, and centuries away from the simple methods to tap and boil tree sap indigenous people taught European arrivals.

According to the Quebec maple syrup federation’s latest statistics, there are 11,300 maple syrup producers in the province, a quarter of whom are women. They are part of 7,400 production groups in 12 regions of the province. They produce an average, over the past three years, of 139 million pounds of syrup, worth about $350 million a year. Think about this: 48 million taps in the trees, each on average producing about 3.5 pounds of sap, or sève, in French.

Improvements in processing technology have reduced the amount of sap required. Generally, it takes 40 litres of sap to make one litre of syrup. The method for collecting the sap has changed dramatically from the traditional method of a tap hammered into a tree dripping “maple water” into a metal bucket which the sugar farmer would collect by hand every day. Nowadays, at most large volume producers, a vast grid of plastic tubes threading through the woods transports the liquid to a central collection reservoir.

Maple syrup has become such a big industry, it’s even been the target of a bold heist worthy of a Hollywood movie. In 2012, a gang of clever thieves stole some 3,000 tons of maple syrup, worth $19 million, from barrels stored in a giant warehouse south of Quebec City. The stolen syrup was repackaged and sold through outlets in Vermont and New Brunswick. Police caught the culprits and five were sent to jail. The tale was featured in the Netflix series Dirty Money last year.

On the less criminal side of the business, Quebec maple producers are facing increased competition from south of the border where American producers, notably in Vermont, are siphoning off a bigger share of the market. As unlikely as it sounds, a considerable quantity of American maple syrup is imported into Canada.

Quebec producers are finding interesting ways to grow the market for maple syrup, through a staggering array of different products. The provincial liquor stores alone carry more than 20 maple-based alcoholic beverages, ranging from maple whiskey to maple-flavoured vodka. Craft brewers in the country have brewed many fine beers with a tantalizing hint of maple.

There are countless maple-enhanced bath and beauty products from shampoo to anti-aging cream to hand soap. Maple syrup is chock full of healthy nutrients that ward off disease, strengthen the body and boost energy. And, of course, maple syrup, whether it is eaten or applied to the body, is natural, additive-free and organic.

When it comes down to it, what makes maple syrup such a desirable product is its incomparable taste. Imagine such a sweet elixir being drawn from the flesh of trees, sugar maples, to be precise, scientifically, acer saccharum.

Not only is maple syrup a major business in Quebec, it is also an important part of the cultural fabric and the tourism industry. We’re talking about the famous “sugar shack” or cabane à sucre. There are more than 200 of these traditional spring attractions off the back roads of the province, each one offering traditional food to be drenched in marvelous maple syrup. Many offer jaunty musical entertainment and rides through the sugar bush on horse-drawn sleds or wagons.

The menu is not for the picky calorie-counter, and features some peculiarly-named Quebec specialities, such as oreilles de crisse (literally, Christ’s ears), also known as fried pork rinds, and pets de soeurs (um, nun’s farts, pardon my French), which are flaky little pastry rolls. And, of course, there is the irresistible tire d’érable, where boiled maple syrup is poured onto fresh snow, twirled around wooden sticks and savoured like the sweetest candy in the world.

Maple syrup production, like just about every other cultivated food, is subject to the whims of the weather. Last spring, for example, was considered an unfavourable season for sap-gathering, with a very late arrival of ideal conditions for tapping, cool nights and warm, sunny days. This spring is shaping up to be much the same, or worse, with snow still deep on the ground in the forest, and chilly temperatures. To deal with the ups and downs of maple syrup production, the producers association banks a huge stockpile of maple syrup, which has a long “shelf-life” if stored property, to ensure a steady supply.

As Canadian as maple syrup, they say. And most of the marvelous maple comes from Quebec.