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Stuck on Maple Syrup

Quintessentially Canadian food is a must-have for the pantry 

Maple syrup has always been part of Genevieve Martineau’s life. Her family doesn’t produce the sweet stuff, but, living in Quebec, she is surrounded by it — especially in the spring, when she and her family make a point of visiting sugar shacks, the farm cabins where sap is collected from maple trees and then boiled into maple syrup. “Going to the sugar shack is a traditional annual activity with my family,” says Martineau, a communications advisor for the Quebec Maple Syrup Producers


She’s in good company. While some Canadian maple syrup is made in Ontario and New Brunswick, 90 percent comes from Quebec - Quebec makes 72 percent of the total world production of maple syrup. While we Canucks eat copious amounts of the sticky stuff here at home, about 85 per cent is exported to more than 70 countries around the world. According to Statistics Canada, top export markets include the United States (despite the fact they have a small industry of their own), as well as Germany, the United Kingdom, Japan and Australia. 


In 2023, 56 million kilograms (about 124 million pounds) of maple syrup was harvested in Quebec; that’s down from 2022, when harvest was a record-breaking 96 million kilos (about 211 million pounds.) Pass those pancakes, people… 


Seriously, though, what makes maple syrup so wonderful? “So many things!” Martineau exclaims. 


First and foremost, it’s made from just one ingredient, maple water, which flows from maple trees as sap every spring. A sugarbush operator “taps” each tree by drilling a small hole, about three centimetres deep, and then inserting a spout for the sap to run out. Heated until much of the water evaporates, that sap thickens, turning into the final product — what we know and love as maple syrup — which is then bottled and sold as is, with no artificial flavours, colours or preservatives.  


What it does contain: Vitamins and minerals. A tablespoon of maple syrup contains about a third of our daily value of manganese, good for healthy bones. It also contains zinc, copper, calcium, iron, magnesium, and potassium.  


And, of course, it’s a natural sugar, too. “Maple is a great addition to any recipe that calls for sugar, as it is an excellent substitute for other sweetening agents,” Martineau says. “Few ingredients are as delicious and versatile as maple syrup.” Joyce Wright, owner of Good Stuff Maple in Calgary, agrees. “Maple syrup just adds so much flavour to everything, and it’s a truly Canadian product,” she says. 


Joyce Wright, owner, Good Stuff Maple

Indeed, maple syrup’s roots in Canada go back hundreds of years. Early European settlers, in what is now northeastern North America, learned about the sticky stuff from their Indigenous neighbours, who had been turning maple sap into sugar for generations - the earliest written records of the harvest process date back to 1609. 


Wright got into the business when a friend from Quebec couldn’t find maple syrup that reminded him of what he’d had at home. He began shipping it in and, as a favour, she started making maple butter tarts for him to sell at the Crossroads Market in Calgary. When he decided to return to Quebec, she took over, and now he ships his syrup straight to her from a farm of about 50,000 trees south of Rimouski, Quebec.  


She sells various products at farmers’ markets in and around Calgary, including Millarville, Cochrane, and Bearspaw, as well as Fresh and Local Market & Kitchens in Avenida. Salt Cellar in Okotoks uses her syrup for a couple of salt blends, and Village Brewery once used her maple syrup in a special beer. It’s been an ingredient for maple bacon and a mustard, too.  


Wright — who says her most popular product is her dark maple syrup — is legendary for her maple butter tarts, but she also makes maple barbecue sauce, shortbread, marinades, salad dressings, even bran muffins. She likes it on her oatmeal in the winter and notes that friends use it in their coffee in place of sugar. “It’s so versatile. Anywhere you use sugar, you can use maple syrup or maple sugar,” Wright says. “You can use it for so much more than just pancake syrup.” 


Jose Desmarais, owner of JD Maple Products in St. Albert, found a career in the maple syrup industry almost by accident. From Quebec’s Eastern Townships, south of Montreal, he was part of the Canadian military for many years and upon retirement, was looking for a new challenge. When an early business venture went sideways, he returned to Quebec and spent time with his cousin, who works in the maple syrup industry there. Desmarais asked if she thought he’d have a chance selling maple syrup in Alberta. She thought it was a great idea and the rest, as the expression goes, is history. Since 2022, Desmarais has been selling that syrup — from Brien Maple Sweets in Ste-Anne-de-la-Rochelle — at the Bountiful and Old Strathcona farmers’ markets in Edmonton. 


Same as Wright in Calgary, he says his most popular product is his dark maple syrup. Four-litre jugs are big for restaurant sales, but for general retail, his second-most-popular product is, by far, the famous “product of Quebec” vintage-style red tins, with labels depicting trees, snow, and red shack. “Tourists really love those,” he says. “It’s the nostalgia.” 


Like most farms and agricultural businesses these days, maple syrup farmers aren’t immune to weather and climate change. “Consequences of climate change on maple syrup producers are real and worrying,” Martineau says. The loss of one tree may not sound like much in a field of 50,000 — but it takes about 50 years for a tree to be productive. “Natural disasters are more frequent and of greater intensity.” What will 2024 be like? As of writing this story, it’s too early to tell, Martineau says. “Each year, it begins anew.” 


No matter who you’re talking to, however, one thing remains the same: Maple syrup is always delicious, no matter where or how you eat it. 


What is a Caban a Sucre 

Translated from French to English, it’s a sugar shack, a place where maple syrup is made. “The annual spring outing to a sugar shack is a long-held custom in Québec. Several hundred sugar shack owners open their doors to the public. People come out to welcome the arrival of spring in March and April by enjoying a traditional meal and fun activities,” says Genevieve Martineau. 

“The first sugar parties were organized as early as 1868. Today, most Quebec families gather here to celebrate the sugaring-off season and reconnect with their roots.” 

Of course, there’s plenty of maple syrup to buy and eat — including Martineau’s favourite, maple taffy, fresh syrup rolled until it’s cooled in the snow. 


Storing Syrup 

Unopened, a bottle of maple syrup will last about a year in your pantry. But once you’ve opened it, store it in the fridge.  


Maple Syrup Grades 

I’d give maple syrup an A+, I love it so much. But in real life, maple syrup is graded according to its colour and flavour in Canada: 

  • Golden — the lightest colour and most delicately flavoured 

  • Amber — As the name suggests, it’s amber coloured 

  • Dark — A more pronounced flavour and darker colour 

  • Very Dark — Richly flavoured, very dark amber/brown, a favourite amongst Canadians, especially for baking and cooking 


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