A Visit to a Sugar Shack in the Eastern Townships

Today we're excited to have Instagram friend and Ottawa-based, Vanessa Gervais of @heyladygrey here on Poppytalk, whom we invited to share with us, a story about her parent's sugar shack in the Eastern Townships of Quebec.  We spotted their family trip there last year on her feed, and when we saw them there again this week, we had to pop her an email to see if she'd be interested in sharing it with our readers. And thrilled she said, "yes"!  Thank you Vanessa!  Here's her post:

It happens only once a year, somewhere during that awkward, drawn-out phase before the end of winter and the start of spring. If the conditions are just right, and the temperatures rise above zero degrees during the day and fall back below freezing at night, then the sap inside the sugar maples begins to flow.

Every March, my boys and I head out to my parent’s sugar shack in the Eastern Townships of Quebec for their annual maple harvest. They live in a tiny town - you can barely even call it that - just a humble collection of weathered houses and a few local artisans: a pottery shop, a small organic vineyard, and a church that only opens on a few Summer Sundays and Christmas Eve. It’s incredibly charming.

Years ago, my father rallied up a few of his neighbours and convinced them to all build a communal sugar shack together in the middle of a small maple forest. Together they bought a large wood stove, a few hundred metal buckets and spiles, and essentially taught themselves how to make maple syrup.

Maple syrup isn’t an overly complicated thing to make, but it is rather labour-intensive. My father does this as a hobby, so everything is done by hand. The 300+ buckets are emptied daily into larger containers, which are pulled back to the shack on old wooden sleds, all by hand.

But many hands make for light work, and my boys, aged 4 and 6 years, love to pitch in. They skip ahead on the snowy trails, check the buckets, and empty them. When they tire of working they play with sticks in the snow. It always surprises me how they can do this for hours on end and never complain of boredom (something that happens daily when they’re at home in the city surrounded by their toys).

Each year is different, and you never know what kind of a season you will get. Nature is fully in charge. All you can do is tap the trees, hang your buckets, and hope for the best.

Drop by drop the sap collects. Each drop makes a distinct “ting” sound as it hits the bottom of the metal bucket. If you stand still in the forest and just listen, you can hear this dripping all around you, and it sounds almost musical. That might be my favourite part.

Once collected, the sap is boiled down for hours and hours; days even. There’s no rushing it. We play card games at the shack’s only table, and brew slightly sweet coffee using fresh maple water. The wood stove burns hot inside the shack and warms our toes and dries our wet mittens. In the evenings we drink hot “rum & reduit”, a rustic Québécois cocktail made of rum and half-reduced sap ladled straight out of the evaporator.

At one point during our visit my father will make the “tire d’érable” (sugar on snow), or “maple lollipops” as my boys call it. If you’ve never had this treat before, it’s when maple syrup is boiled and reduced even further, and then poured directly onto clean snow. The snow immediately cools the hot syrup into a thick, sticky toffee that can be rolled up on the ends of popsicle sticks and eaten like lollipops. It’s ridiculously sweet, and very, very delicious.

But sweet treats aside, the true magic of this entire process for me is actually the work itself. I love how it draws us out of the hustle of our daily lives. We arrive from the city and spend our entire days outside in the woods. No internet connection, no distraction from social media. We work hard, hauling heavy buckets of sap while trudging through dense, wet snow.

When larger companies make maple syrup to sell commercially, they have elaborate systems of pipes that drain and collect the sap in an infinitely more efficient way, but I enjoy the fact that we are limited by what we can collect and carry. It’s the kind of physical work that makes you feel happy and whole and connected to the land.

At the end of our stay, we bring home a humble case of this liquid golden syrup that we cherish throughout the year. It is a labour of love, for sure, but the rewards are very sweet indeed.

Vanessa Gervais is a family doctor who lives in Ottawa, Ontario with her husband and two young boys. You can see more of their adventures on her instagram account @heyladygrey.

Jan Halvarson

No comments: