We skated our little car into the parking lot, which was really no more than a muddy clearing in a forest, and was now a decidedly solid thick layer of ice. We paused in our car, peering across the clearing to the weathered shack on the hillside that for all appearances, looked to be on fire. Black smoke poured out from the stovepipe chimney, and voluminous clouds of steam swelled out from the rooftop. Hot steam overflowed from a giant window cut out in the rooftop, making the small cabin almost disappear. After an hour’s drive from downtown Montreal, we had arrived.
No other guests had arrived yet, so we were a bit awkward with the hostess, clearly showing our inexperience with such traditions. We hoped to take a jaunty stroll through the sugar bush before the start of brunch. A sugar bush is a grouping of maple trees that are tapped for sap. The tap runs into little pails that hung on the tap. The sap is called maple water and runs when the nights are below freezing and the days are above.
When the conditions are right in early spring, the pails slowly fills up and the farmers run to each tree collecting and pouring the maple water off into a large vat. The maple water is then brought to the sugar shack, and heated on a wood burning stove until enough water evaporates to make it syrupy. It takes 40 liters of maple water to make one liter of maple syrup!
The jaunty stroll was a bit of a fool’s errand. The snow was deep, topped with a thick layer of ice for extra fun and stumbles. We were happy when more guests started to arrive, and we could retreat to the cabin’s dining hall.
Many sugar shacks have petting zoos, small trains, or other kitschy amusements. I chose Pic-Bois sugar shack because they didn’t have any amusements, just a simple a homey cabin set in a sugar bush serving a traditional Quebec family meal twice daily.
They make all their syrup on giant iron stove, using only wood for energy. They also make their own maple syrup vinegar that is complex and a perfect pairing of maple goodness and balanced brightness.
You must call ahead to reserve a spot at one of the long wood tables, brunch is served at noon, and dinner at 6pm. It begins with a bowl of traditional Quebec split pea soup with ham served with crusty bread. Then the buffet opens up, and the tough decisions begin. Maple ham, omlets, fried pork rinds, maple sausages, baked beans with bacon, pickled beets, herby Quebec coleslaw, and more are laid before you. A liter of maple syrup sits on the table, ready to wield as you wish.
If you are prepared, second helpings are a must, and then dessert starts before you can say no. Maple syrup pie, fried dumplings, and crepes are piled up on your plate, and by now it is pure instinct that drives you to drench everything with more maple syrup. Tea and coffee is offered again, but only as an interlude to the finale. The owner of the establishment, a fourth generation maple syrup purveyor, and someone that could double as a fit Santa Claus, steps towards the door with a box of tongue depressors and a steaming cup of maple syrup. He collects some fresh snow and generously pours out the hot maple syrup. It cools on the bed of snow, but before it can harder, he flips a wood tongue depressor around it and twirls it into maple taffy.
It’s soft and warm, but a bit chewy and incredibly sweet. It’s the tipping point, and the perfect way to end a day at the sugar shack. You waddle back to your car, completely swept up with everything maple, and ready to come back next year.