When I was growing up, visiting a sugar shack in March was a tradition. It was the quintessential Québécois family activity. It seemed as though everyone knew someone in his or her close or extended families who had a sugar shack, so we would all go and spend a sunny weekend day there, running among the maple trees, dipping our fingers in the maple sap (which was at the time still collected in buckets—at least at the farm I remember visiting), and eating as much maple taffy as possible.
My aunt and my mom harvesting buckets of maple sap.
It was a classic school outing, too: yellow buses would bring dozens of excited kids to larger installations, which were used to manage volume (in numbers and decibels). At commercial sugar shacks, there were often musicians playing traditional instruments such as the accordion and harmonica, and wooden spoons were passed around so patrons could add more rhythm to an already raucous atmosphere.
We would sometimes go to the sugar shack just to help with gathering the sap, play around, and eat maple taffy, but when we’d eat a meal there, it would be for brunch. The traditional menu gathered several traditional Québécois dishes such as split pea soup, maple ham, eggs cooked in maple syrup, meat pie, baked beans, crêpes, and pouding chômeur. The formula was all you can eat, and the rule was that everything had to be doused in maple syrup (especially savory dishes—a practice that is probably at the source of my addiction to treats that are both sweet and salty).
Pouring maple taffy for a crowd.
It seems to me now though that the sugar shack outing tradition is disappearing. There are several reasons for this: first, it seems like nobody knows anyone who owns a sugar shack anymore. Just like a farm, managing a sugar shack is hard work, and the younger generation is losing interest in such hands-on jobs. Over the years, the price of land has risen too, making it attractive for sugar shack owners to sell to larger operations or land developers. Also, I feel like people are spending more weekend family time in the city, shuttling the kids between activities and classes, instead of gathering with the extended family and heading to the country.. Families have spread out too: when I was a kid, the majority of my family (uncles, aunts, and cousins) lived around Quebec City; now many of us have moved away, making it difficult for large family gatherings to happen.
But this is not a tale of nostalgia. Times are changing; I’m part of this generational and unavoidable shift—and change can be OK, too. I fondly remember my sugar shack memories, and the sugar shack tradition is still part of our heritage. Come March, we crave maple anything, and now there are new ways to satisfy our appetite closer to home. Renowned chef Martin Picard is a pioneer in celebrating the sugar shack menu in all its decadent glory: his Cabane à Sucre Au Pied de Cochon has been serving a wildly popular maple season-inspired menu since 2008. Reservations for the seasonal restaurant, located on the land where Picard really does harvest the maple sap that is used on site, are taken in December for the following maple season that lasts from mid-February to early May. Places sell out in merely days every year, and the waiting list is seemingly endless.
A couple of years ago, a new “urban sugar shack” trend started in Quebec City and Montreal, with chefs tackling the task of reinventing the traditional menu in their restaurant or in temporary spaces fitted to reminisce the sugar shack in a modern way. Although these incredibly creative menus leave rustic flavors and traditional presentations far behind, they do make the most of seasonal ingredients and flavors, and most importantly, of maple products.
This city revival of the sugar shack outing has been gaining popularity—and with good reason. It is a great way to enjoy a unique gourmet experience, to indulge in childhood nostalgia, to allow today’s generation of kids to gather new maple-flavored memories, and to let visitors in on what makes us so obsessed with maple syrup.
A decor inspired by traditional sugar shacks at Laurie-Raphaël.
Highlights of the Laurie-Raphaël sugar shack brunch menu: maple mimosas, maple and whiskey spruce beer, maple cotton candy, donut sandwich filled with pork belly, bacon, caramelized pineapple, maple and clove cream, and waffle topped with maple butter, maple syrup, and chocolate mousse.
Last year, my brother, who lives in the United States, visited with his family in early April, and he asked whether we wanted to go to a sugar shack. His kids, born and raised on the West Coast, had never set foot in a cabane à sucre, and I hadn’t been in one for years either. My parents, my brother and his family, and my newborn son and I had a traditional sugar shack lunch on Île d’Orléans on a sunny spring day. When I saw the kids dancing to the accordion music, creating raucous with wooden spoons, and continuing to ask for more maple syrup, I realized that tradition never leaves us. It’s up to us to keep it alive.
Traditional all-you-can-eat sugar shack plate (with a side of baby hand) at Le Relais des Pins, Île d’Orléans.
Sugar Shack Address Book
- Traditional sugar shack experience
Le Relais des Pins, Île d’Orléans
The all-you-can-eat maple season menu is served February through April; the restaurant is open year round and serves traditional Québécois cuisine.
- Reinvented sugar shack menu
Laurie-Raphaël, Old Port, Quebec City
The 5-course gourmet maple season brunch menu is served Saturdays and Sundays, March 8 to April 12, 2015.
- Maple Product Shopping
Petite cabane à sucre de Québec, Old Port, Quebec City
This shop, located in atmospheric Petit Champlain, sells a wide array of maple products as well as fresh maple taffy year round.
- Reinvented sugar shack menu
Un Chef à l’Érable (with chef Laurent Godbout), Old Port, Montreal
Gourmet multi-course menu served from March 6 to April 12 in a room especially fitted for the event.
Tip from the pro: Don’t roll maple taffy as soon as it’s poured. Wait for it to cool and harden a bit so some snow sticks on the taffy as you roll it. A true winter delight!
Maple Season-Inspired Recipes
- Parsnip, Pear and Maple Soup with Seared Scallops
- Spicy & Sweet Cocktail Pecans
- Pecan and Maple Thumbprint Cookies
- Maple Walnut Cream Tart
- Crispy Maple Mini-Meringues
- Traditional Québécois Maple Pudding (pouding chômeur)
Special thanks to Suzanne Gagnon and chef Daniel Vézina for inviting me to sample Laurie-Raphaël’s maple season brunch menu.