If you’ve never heard of a sugar shack or think “sugaring off” is some bizarre Québécois insult, read this post. And if you’ve heard of sugar shacks but thought they couldn’t be found within the city of Montreal, you should also keep reading…
The process of siphoning off the sweet sap of the maple tree is ancient and dates back to the Iroquois practice of notching the tree with an axe to extract the sweet substance that makes maple syryp. French-Canadian settlers learned the trick, and since about 1700, used cedar boughs to form a pipe to collect the sap. Then, they boiled the maple water in a cauldron to refine the sap into a syrup. Now, metal pails, spouts and evaporators are used in Quebec’s thriving maple-syrup industry. Each maple in an orchard is tapped and produces one liter of beautiful gold grade-A maple syrup, which is shipped in cans around the world as the most delectable delicacy of our terroir.
But there’s more to sugaring-off season than just syrup—there’s a whole raft of traditional dishes that go along with the maple, including pork + beans, omelettes, Oreilles de criss (Christ’s ears, or a kind of fried pork rinds), pancakes, and other treats. Sugar-shack visits tend to be well-lubricated affairs too, with beer and Sortilege (maple whisky) keeping things hopping well into the night.
Though it’s fun to pile into a bus and take off for a real country sugar-shack experience during the Temps des Sucres (sugaring-off time), it’s not really necessary to hit the highways and byways of small-town Quebec to taste the delicious sweet tang of maple sugar. These days, there are plenty of urban sugar-shack type experiences in the city of Montreal to satisfy your sweet tooth. Here are a few Insider favourites…
Marc-Andre Jette and Patrice Demers are hip young chefs that opened their own first restaurant, Les 400 Coups, in Old Montreal last fall. But they still find time to mount their gourmet sugar-shack, La Cabane, on De La Commune Street in Old Montreal this spring. The menu includes slick, modern takes on old favourites, including salmon confit with duck fat, turkey stew with carrots and Oreilles de crisse, and maple ice-cream parfaits.
At Montreal’s Botanical Gardens, a sugaring-off exhibit for children will run from March 12 to April 3. In the Tree House and Arboretum, the permanent, living tree-themed installation, there will be a learning exhibit for kids on the “secrets of trees” and also some themed activities based on maple trees, and snacks including maple syrup and taffee.
Alexandre Loiseau, protégé of Normand Laprise of Toqué, has for the last few years had a cozy little bistro on St-Denis Street called Bistro Cocagne. During the High Lights Festival, he introduced a brunch menu called Le Diable est dans la Cabane [the Devil is in the Shack], a refined tasting menu based on maple products. The menu includes dishes incorporating traditional potage, Oreilles de criss [christ’s ears] and bines [pork-baked beans] in an elegant service. Loiseau will reprise this menu for brunch on Mother’s Day and Easter.
Hotel Nelligan, in a heritage building on Saint Paul in Old Montreal, is an atmospheric place to get a drink at any time of year, but especially when their rooftop terrace, the Terrasse Nelligan, is open in the spring and summer with its spectacular view of the port and the harbour. Now, they’re opening it for two weekends during the sugar-ing off to create their own version of a trendy sugar shack. Two options are available, an early-evening buffet with traditional folk music, or a late-night party with special guest DJs.
This sugar shack is more like a fancy New York restaurant opening, at least in the sense that it’s still almost impossible to get a reservation. This suburban shack by Martin Picard, the ubiquitous TV star of Montreal resto Au Pied de Cochon [Pig’s Foot] is a little far from town, but it’s word-class. They even have their own cotton-candy machine.
Guest Blogger: Melora Koepke
Photo Credit: La Cabane- Alexandra Forbes, Montreal Botanical Garden- Michel Tremblay