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Au Pied de Cochon. Celebrity chef Martin Picard champions maple syrup in all its grades and shades at his annual Québec sugar shack outside Montréal. Diners enter a lottery to obtain the privilege of buying tickets to the notoriously gluttonous, multi-course weekend brunch and dinner feasts. To start: a tower of maple cotton candy, donuts, croissants, cookies, maple-filled cones, sponge taffy, popcorn, crème caramel, and straight shots of maple and gin. Then maple martinis with oysters with maple jelly; foie gras omelettes; lobster-stuffed chicken; oreilles de crises pork rind salad (See “Cabane à Sucre”) in a lard, butter, and maple dressing; maple-drizzled yellow pea soup; braised pork tourtière meat pie with maple-sweetened flaky crust, and traditional pineapple ham (Picard even feeds his pigs maple syrup). Even if other traditional sugar shack activities are overlooked (e.g. sleigh rides, step-dancing), byo-snowshoes and crunch through the snow alleviate the post-brunch coma at Picard’s rustic property.
Better Bitters. Urban Moonshine makes organic maple bitters. Their website promotes the distilled drops as good for digestion. Whether or not a few drops will calm your stomach after a six-ounce hunk of filet mignon topped with foie gras, a few drops squeezed over strawberries swimming in maple syrup for dessert can’t hurt.
Cabane à Sucre. The traditional sugar shack is a Quebecois tradition of food, drink, music, and outdoor activities at a maple farm during maple syrup season. The “sugaring off” season runs March through April, after the sap from maple trees has been tapped and boiled into syrup. City slickers drive out on weekends for homestyle brunch buffets of French toast, crepes, pea soup, eggs, baked beans with lard, and oreilles de crises (fried pork rinds or, traditionally, pig’s ears, which often taste more like salted rubber than bacon, unless you’re at the Au Pied de Cochon shack where they’re sublime—see “Au Pied de Cochon”), and anything else delicious made from a pig (See “Lard”). It’s not a sugar shack if you don’t leave stuffed.
Diabetic Friendly? No. Maple syrup hits the bloodstream hard. Thanks to its high glycemic index, it’s not for diabetics. At least it's the best refined white sugar in terms of flavor and mineral content. Cholesterol friendly? Yes. Native Americans even used sap as cooking water to flavor dishes without adding salt.
Evaluating Flavor. Agriculture Canada uses a "flavor wheel" of 91 unique tastes to describe maple syrup. Flavor families include vanilla, burnt, milky, spicy, foreign deterioration or environment, plants forest-humus-cereals, herbaceous, and ligneous. Experts take a very serious, sommelier-style approach to describing syrup. One of the flavor families is “maple,” and to describe maple as “maple-y” is ridiculous, therefore the flavor wheel is questionable. Most people just say the syrup is delicious.
Free Flowing. Maple syrup is made from sap that flows from maple trees when temperatures finally rise above 0°C in early spring. The trunks and roots of the trees store starch during winter and the freezing and thawing converts sap to sugar. If the temperatures rise quickly and it doesn’t re-freeze overnight, the tree starts budding, which makes the sap turn bitter.
Grading Syrup. Syrup is classified by color and grade. The first syrup of the season is the lightest in flavor and color and is labeled Grade A, No. 1, extra-light, light, or medium depending on the country (Canada or America) of origin. Grade B, No. 2, and No. 3 aren’t actually inferior syrups; they’re late season syrups and are often darker and richer. In Vermont, the maple syrup capital of America, inspectors fine producers up to $1000 for mislabeling syrup. Lighter syrups are best for pancakes or French toast, so that the delicate flavor isn’t overwhelmed.
Hydration. Unreduced maple sap, called “maple water,” is now sold by several companies including Seva, Oviva, and Maple3 in tetra pack containers, and is being marketed as a hydrating, healthy drink, fast on the heels of coconut water.
Ice Cube Gourmet. Montreal master mixologist, Graham Warner, makes maple ice cubes from maple water. Try saying that five times fast. The cubes are a slightly sweet gourmet addition to his Old Fashioned maple.
Japan’s Sweet Tooth. Japan imports approximately 10% of Canada’s maple syrup and seemingly can’t get enough of the sweet stuff. A Japanese importer suggested to gourmet fruitcake-maker Ken Ilasz to add maple syrup to his cakes and they’d sell faster in Japan. He did. They did.
Korean Gorosoe. In South Korea, maple saps from local trees as a seasonal delicacy. The tree, called Gorosoe, means “good for the bones,” and is purported to be just that. Koreans skip the labor-intensive step of boiling the sap down to syrup, they drink it instead —preferably 20 litres of it over the course of a day (see “Yeo Manyong”).
Lard. Fèves au lard or beans cooked with bacon, lardons (squares of pork fat), or commercial lard are a sugar shack delicacy. There are vegetarian sugar shacks that serve pork-less beans. Anything resembling deep-fried ears of tofu should be avoided (see “Cabane à Sucre”).
Moons of Maple. Native American Iroquois tribes traditionally celebrate Spring's first full moon, the “Sugar Moon,” with a dance dedicated to maple. You’d celebrate with a dance, too if the running of the sap meant -30°C wind chills days were over.
No Room for Dessert. Back at Chef Picard’s sugar shack, there’s still dessert to come, the cotton candy and sponge taffy were just appetizers. Good luck saving room for maple and pecan-stuffed angel food cake frosted with Italian meringue; yogurt and maple jello; and maple ice cream skewered with maple taffy popsicles. Diners are encouraged to take leftovers.
Old Fashioned and Other Boozy Options. In a variation of a classic bourbon Old Fashioned cocktail, maple works swimmingly in place of simple syrup. Or use it to infuse pears or peaches preserved in brandy or bourbon (either traditionally or with a vacuum sealer, as at the Modernist Cuisine lab).
Pulls of Maple. A traditional Quebec delicacy is a tire d’érable—literally a pull of maple. Hot syrup is poured in a thin stream about 10-15 cm long on a bed of snow. As the syrup cools and hardens, the lucky recipient uses a popsicle stick to roll the still pliable maple into a lollipop.
Québec’s Golden Nectar. Canada’s French-speaking province of Québec produces three quarters of the world’s maple syrup. It exports more than $140 million worth of maple syrup per year, or about 20 million cans and bottles, which doesn’t even include domestic purchases. The Maple Producers of Quebec now sponsor a French Maple Syrup Ambassador whose job is to inspire curious gourmets, both chefs and home cooks alike, to use more maple. This year the title belongs to the double Michelin starred Christophe Bacquié, the chef de cuisine at the Relais & Châteaux Hôtel du Castelle. How can Vermont compete with Québec’s maple ambassador?
Reeds and Bubble Gum. Before Europeans started drilling holes into maple trees to allow the sap to flow in the spring thaw, Iroquois Indians made v-shaped slashes in the tree bark and then used reeds or carved out pieces of wood to allow the sap to run like a gumball machine (or Mousetrap) into wooden pails. Nowadays, long plastic tubing is more common.
Sweet Sap into Sugar. To make granulated maple sugar, the Iroquois poured sap into hollow logs and evaporated the water by placing hot rocks in them. It took forever and those assigned to the task were happy not be the ones lugging the heavy wooden pails of sap from the trees to the cooking fires. To make cake sugar (blocks of sugar that were easy to transport), they poured the remains of the evaporated sap into wooden moulds to harden into bricks.
Trees Fighting Back. Maple trees try to heal the hole that tree tappers bore into them. To prevent this, researchers at the University of Vermont invented a tap that prevents back flow of sap into the tree. The trees have no comment.
Ultimate Maple Cookbook. For those not lucky enough to win the ticket lottery to Au Pied de Cochon’s winter sugar shack, or those preferring to choose their maple menu, the APdC Sugar Shack cookbook features over 100 maple syrup recipes as well as a diary of a year at the shack. The book won Cookbook of the Year at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in 2012. The recipes, however, are often aimed at those willing to splurge on gallons of expensive syrup, making it a coffee table and special occasion cookbook.
Viscosity. Real maple syrup is a world apart from “maple-flavored” syrups and other maple knock-offs. In fakes, the main ingredient is often high-fructose corn syrup thickened into a viscous mess, and is flavored with sotolon—a maple-like flavor in fenugreek seeds. Maple extract made its way into table syrups in the 1930’s as a cheap maple alternative. It’s no longer the Great Depression. So unless your household pours real maple syrup on pancakes as though it grew on rather than in trees, please throw away your extracts and fake syrups.
Winter Squash. If you think syrup is only for sweet foods, you have never tasted a roasted squash drizzled with maple syrup, lemon, and a pinch of salt. Then try carrots braised in butter and maple with garlic, thyme, and salt.
Xenophobic Maple Producers? The great maple war of Vermont versus Québec stretches on. While other states produce maple syrup (New Hampshire, New York), the American powerhouse of maple syrup is Vermont, competing with Québec for international maple market share. Whose syrup is better? Objective outsiders compare by type of tree, farm of origin, material and shape of container used for boiling, and personal taste. The true answer, however, has more to do with patriotism than quality. If you were born north of the border, your syrup is clearly the best. And if you were born south of the border, it clearly isn’t.
Yeo Manyong. This farmer in Hadong, South Korea, describes the ideal method of cleansing one’s body with maple sap as sharing a room in a bathhouse for a day with friends or family, sitting on the heated floor while drinking liter after liter of maple water, and playing cards and eating salty snacks that make you thirsty, thereby replacing as much liquid in your body with maple water as possible. “The idea is to sweat out all the bad stuff and replace it with sap,” he says.
Zinciferous. Maple syrup contains magnesium, potassium, calcium and even zinc. So while you shouldn’t drink the syrup by the gallon (contrary to what Chef Martin Picard would have you believe—see “Au Pied de Cochon”), it’s better for you than corn syrup.