The early Canadian frontier experience was defined by the thick forests and brutal winters that met French settlers along the Saint Lawrence River. It is only natural then that it was from the trees that surrounded and enclosed them that they drew succour and sustenance. And of those trees, one species in particular has come to define the country: the distinctive Acer or maple, with its rich red and orange autumnal foliage, which lines the country’s suburban streets. There are more than 120 species of maple trees worldwide, but only ten are native to Canada. Of those ten, one is now central to Canada’s gastronomic identity: the Acer saccharum or sugar maple – with the maple leaf getting adopted as the official symbol of Canada at the inauguration of the country’s familiar red-and-white flag in February 1965. The first settlers learned from the indigenous people how to tap the sugar maple and produce subtle, sweet syrup from its sap. Then, it was a cottage (or rather, cabin) industry.
Everyone tapped their own trees, boring holes in the trunk and inserting a short pipe from which a wooden bucket was hung. Today, this annual springtime ritual is a multimillion-dollar industry. Quebec is the centre of production – its trees account for more than 70 per cent of the world’s syrup – and output is overseen by the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers, which holds a “global strategic maple syrup reserve” and carefully regulates prices. Maple woods – still quaintly called a sugar bush – look rather less rustic too: trees are strung with a web of plastic pipes that run back to a vacuum pump to collect the sap, which is then turned to syrup in expensive stainless-steel vats. The Federation sets quotas, and Quebec’s producers can only legally sell through their channels. But in what has been dubbed the Maple Syrup War, some refuseniks are flouting the Federation’s heavy fines and selling independently. Worse, one morning in August 2012, it was discovered that almost CA$30 million worth of syrup – around 1,000 tonnes – had been stolen from the reserve. It was an audacious heist that left producers fearful prices could collapse if the counterfeit syrup was dumped on the market.
But despite the intrigue, nothing can remove the essential romance of maple syrup. For just 20- 25 days each spring, as the air temperature rises above freezing, farmers begin the annual ritual of tapping trees for their sap before “sugaring off” – boiling the sap, which is 3 per cent sugar, to produce syrup, which must be at least 66 per cent sugar to qualify as true Canadian maple syrup. About 40 litres of sap makes just one litre of syrup.
If you have only ever come across maple syrup on Shrove Tuesday or in a diner over a breakfast of pancakes and bacon, it may come as a surprise to learn that all syrup is not created equal. Sap taken early in the season tends to produce syrup that is lighter in colour and more delicate in flavour than that produced later. The end of the season is marked by a change in the flavour of the sap altogether, as it becomes bitter and unpalatable.
A simple grading system has been developed to classify syrup. Only Grade A can be sold to consumers and it comes in four different hues: golden with a delicate taste, amber with a rich taste, dark with a robust taste, and very dark with a strong taste.
The darker, more robust syrup is generally used in cooking and baking; the lighter golden and amber syrup is poured liberally over pancakes and waffles, and its delicate sweetness is a natural foil for the robust flavour of fried bacon.
Beyond the familiar syrup, maple sap is also used to make a host of maple-flavoured foodstuffs, from maple sugar and maple butter to maple pork rub, maple vinaigrette and even maple tea and coffee: although you may want to draw the line at maple perfume.