How to sugar shack like a French Canadian

February 16, 2024

As we near winter’s end, temperatures in Canada are slowly warming up. The snow is now melting, jackets are coming off, and most importantly, maple tree sap is beginning to flow. Maple season is now upon us. This marks the time of year when many of us come out of hibernation ready for the ultimate Canadian experience: a trip to the cabane à sucre a.k.a., the sugar shack. These are the spaces where Canada’s liquid gold is made. Whether you’re a foreigner travelling in Canada or a Canadian looking to honour your culture, this season is a time to embrace authentic northern experiences and head to the sugar shack like a true French-Canadian. Here’s everything you need to know about sugar shacking like a real Quebecois during the literal sweetest time of year.

1. You can drink straight from the tree

For a day at the sugar shack, you’re going to want to dress up in cozy winter gear as much of the adventure will take place outside. Think rugged, old clothes and lumberjack vibes since your clothes are bound to get a little smoky or snagged by tree branches as you walk between the trees. A trip to the sugar shack usually begins by walking around the property and strolling in the woods between the tapped trees as you collect fresh maple sap. In late winter and early spring, you can actually drink maple water straight from the tree! If you’re sugar-shacking the right way, you’ll want to catch a drop of this fresh sap right from the tap straight onto your taste buds. Refreshing, natural, and sweet, one taste probably won’t be enough so go ahead and take a big swig right from the bucket.

2. Always respect the process

Making maple syrup is no easy feat. The process is long and time-consuming with multiple steps. It takes a few days for the three-to-five-gallon buckets to fill and it takes 40 gallons of fresh maple sap to create one gallon of maple syrup. In order to tap a tree, it must also be at least 30 years old. To avoid having to trek through the woods and carry heavy buckets, most maple syrup producers have to install a tubing system which takes sap from the trees to one central tank. Then there’s the place where much of the magic happens: the evaporation rooms. In these spaces, liquidy maple sap is boiled down in a long, multi-stage process to create a concentrated syrup. That’s a process that demands respect! If you’re lucky, you’ll even get to try some of that réduit d’érable, hot maple sap that’s on its way to becoming syrup. Delicious.

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3. Come with an appetite

If you’re sugar-shacking like a true French Canadian, you best be ready to gracefully stuff your face in a quaint little log cabin. Naturally, almost everything you eat will be maple-related. You’re allowed (and expected) to add maple syrup to everything on the table. A traditional menu of tasty Quebec eats could very well include: soupe aux pois (yellow pea soup with maple ham hock), jambon au four à l'érable (maple-baked ham), pancakes, potatoes, des oeufs cuit dans le sirop (eggs cooked in maple syrup), saucisses à l'érable (sausages cooked in maple syrup), fèves au lard (lard beans sounds better in French but refers to maple baked beans), creton (pork spread pâté), pain crouté maison (homemade crusty bread), ragoût de boulettes (meatball ragu), and always the deep-fried pork rinds known as oreilles de crisse which strangely translates to Christ’s ears. If you want my opinion, the best thing on the menu will be the tourtièrea traditional meat pie from Québec. Expect a rich meal and a richer experience. Told you to come hungry!

4. Be prepared to dance it all off

Dessert is going to be sweet—after all you are at a sugar shack. Traditional dishes include pouding chômeur (translation: unemployed pudding) which was created in Québec during the Great Depression, tarte à l'érable (maple pie), and sucre à la crème à l'érable (creamy maple sugar squares). During this meal, you can expect the lively tunes to match the setting. Ever heard traditional music from Québec? Think songs that are folksy, fun, often satirical and sound kind of like an Irish jig. This is good old foot-stomping dance music. Performers don’t usually hold back: expect singing, drums, accordion, and violin. You know, the works. If you’re able to stand after that huge meal, head to the dance floor.

5. Know that snow maple candy is an actual thing

It sounds too stereotypical to be true but snow maple candy really is a thing in French Canadian culture. See it for yourself at the sugar shack. This iconic cabane à sucre treat is boiled maple syrup which is turned into taffy by pouring it over fresh snow and rolling it up with a wooden stick or spoon. When maple syrup is boiled, it gets thick. The contrast in temperature when it hits the snow allows it to harden into a nice taffy candy which you can eat like a lollipop. A trip to the sugar shack isn’t complete until you do this.

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6. Get outside (it’s the Canadian way)

After more than enough food and sugar, you’re going to need to move. A very traditional French Canadian sugar shack may offer you a ride on a horse-drawn sleigh. The outdoor activities will vary depending on where you go but you could count on having your choice between tractor rides, bonfires, petting zoos, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, winter hiking, or staying overnight in a cabin.

7. You may develop a maple addiction

You came, you saw, you ate, you danced. You developed a new appreciation for the art of making and cooking with maple syrup. As you come down from your sugar high, you’ll probably want to leave with pockets full of maple candy and your own bottle of this Canadian liquid gold. By now, you may have developed a maple addiction as you’ve seen first-hand how it can be used in… everything. From a key ingredient in salad dressings to naturally sweetening your morning coffee, to using it on main courses like salmon or baked ham, maple syrup is versatile and healthy too. As you can see, my French Canadian grandmother taught me well…

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8. A sugar crash is inevitable

By now, you’ve got a sugar crash coming on. Your true French Canadian sugar shack experience is coming to a close. Grab your stuff, shake loose any stray tree bark, and head home. Safely get to your ride and drive home without getting too angry on the road (us French Canadians don’t always manage to do this). You’ll want to hang your outdoor gear somewhere since it’s probably dripping wet and your jacket is definitely scented with eau de maple syrup, ham, tourtière and campfire. Your true cabane à sucre experience is complete. You did it! Now let the sugar crash happen and take a peaceful nap.

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