Maple products, a delicious marker of French-Canadian identity
Maple products are woven into the intangible heritage of Quebecers and, more broadly, of all Francophones across Canada. They are associated with festive practices and production expertise, as well as the natural knowledge that has been passed down from generation to generation ever since the first French immigrants set foot in America. The practice of harvesting sap and transforming it into sugar in the spring has Amerindian roots. This Aboriginal tradition was embraced and so deeply entrenched in French-Canadian culture that maple products are celebrated today in all French communities across the country, even where no maple trees grow! Production of syrup, taffy, sugar and other maple products is a major economic sector in Quebec, where close to three-quarters of the world’s maple syrup reserves are produced. In sugar bushes, the sugar shack has become a place that brings people together in celebration around lavish meals marking the start of spring.
A continually reinvented traditional practice
Maple syrup is one of French-Canada’s most iconic products. The abundant presence of sugar maple in Quebec—formerly New France—explains the early development of this practice. The term “maple sugar,” as opposed to cane sugar imported from the West Indies, embedded maple products very early on into the dietary habits of the French who were born in New France, in other words, Canadians.
This tradition is more alive than ever before. Quebec’s finest chefs incorporate maple syrup into their recipes, and researchers extol its health benefits and perfect its production methods. The tourism industry has also capitalized on the sugar shack craze and now offers year‑round experiences in some places. Maple syrup has also become a strong marker of Francophone identity and instills a sense of belonging. In Quebec, a tourist destination is even known as the Maple Region—that says it all!
Celebrating maple products
Every year, maple and its delicious products are celebrated in the spring. Hundreds of sugar shacks all over Quebec offer festive meals enjoyed to traditional song, music and dance by all generations. Outdoor activities and cultural events are organized during “sugaring-off time,” such as Festival de l’Érable de Plessisville, Festival des sucres de Saint-Pierre-Baptiste, Festival Beauceron de l’érable in Saint-Georges, and Festival de l’érable de Sainte-Rita, in the Lower St. Lawrence region. Some gourmet sugar shack restaurants have also popped up.
Many French-Canadian communities in other provinces continue the tradition with events such as the Vanier Sugar Festival in Ontario, the Sugaring-Off Festival in Saint-Pierre-Jolys, Manitoba, the Calgary Maple Festival in Alberta, and the Maple Sugar Festival in Nanaimo, British Columbia. At all these events, the highlight is definitely hot maple taffy served over snow.
Amerindian “sugar moons” at present-day shacks
Aboriginal peoples collected maple water well before the Europeans arrived, during the short season when new sap is pushed up the tree after winter. They called this period the “sugar moon.” When the French discovered this natural wealth, processes to collect maple sap were still rudimentary. The sap flowed from nicks made in the bark into birch bark containers. It was then boiled in large iron cauldrons set directly on top of the fire outside. It was turned into sugar rather than syrup because sugar lasts much longer without refrigeration.
In the 19th century, the techniques were perfected. Metal spouts, pushed lightly into the tree, replaced wooden ones. Bark containers gave way to tin pales. Wooden shacks were also built to protect the syrup while it was cooking. And, that is how the sugar shack came to be. In the early 20th century, these great many rustic structures became part of the Quebec’s cultural landscape.
Large or small, a sugar shack has all the equipment needed for production: barrels, pails, sugar moulds, pans and food for the sugarmaker, who must often stay awake for long hours to watch over the syrup. It quickly became a fun place for family, neighbours and friends to gather every spring. Major upgrades include collecting sap with vacuum tubing, separating part of the sugar through osmosis and developing more effective kettles to increase yields. While these innovations gave the industry a real boost starting in the 1950s, they posed no threat to the traditional sugar shack, to which Quebecers and tourists alike continue to be very much attached.
Maple syrup producers now make a wider range of products from maple water (sap): candy, jello, granulated sugar and alcoholic drinks. Syrup classified by grade and colour, to indicate how strong it tastes, can also be certified organic. Strict standards control quality. In Quebec, an agency oversees its marketing and its national and international distribution. Knowledge is passed down within families from sugarmaker to sugarmaker over several generations or is acquired at vocational training centres specializing in maple sugar production.
The heritage of sugars
Museum collections consisting of sugar moulds, used to give various shapes and patterns to maple sugar loafs, and even paintings and photographs that have immortalized scenes of the sugaring‑off season are preserved and displayed in institutions such as the Musée de la civilisation in Quebec City or the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. This theme, common in French‑Canadian art, reveals how important it is to French-Canadian identity and culture. After all, is it not a maple leaf that has graced the Canadian flag since its adoption in 1965?