visiting a cabane à sucre

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Last year around this time of year I never managed to get around to having a very typical Québecois experience – going to visit a cabane à sucre, or a sugar shack. Quebec is not the only place that has them, of course, but it was here that I first learned of them and the concept is very tied to Quebec in my own mind. So this year, when a somewhat last-minute invite came from a friend to join a group going to a farm about 45 minutes outside of Montreal, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. So last weekend, we piled into a car and drove out to Rigaud, where we visited Sucrerie de la Montagne.

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I’m not going to lie – the whole experience is a *little* campy (the photo above is the horse-drawn cart that took us from the parking lot to the dining hall, a hilariously short distance), but it was also very, very fun. Even though it was a miserably cold and grey day with freezing rain coming down, everyone around us (ourselves included) was so very cheerful. I think some of that has to do with the sugar, but I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that going to visit a sugar shack is a very tangible sign of spring on the horizon in a part of the world where the long, harsh winter means we won’t be seeing flowers pop up for another month or two.

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Cold nights and warm, sunny days encourage sugar maples to produce sap, so it’s this time of year that the tree taps start flowing. Sucrerie de la Montagne still maintains a lot of the more traditional ways of production, so the maple trees around their grounds have all got metal buckets attached to the taps.

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A visit to a sugar shack involves a big meal – ours was in a large wooden dining hall, full of communal tables, with live folk music and a fire. And let’s just say that the meal isn’t very vegetarian friendly (but then, in my experience, most of the traditional Québecois foods aren’t). But the last course involved pancakes and sugar pie, and those were predictably very good. After the meal we all headed outside for tire d’érable, or maple taffy.

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Troughs of fresh snow are laid out and maple syrup is poured over the top. Once the syrup has sunk in a little bit, you take a popsicle stick and roll it through the syrup for a little sticky maple popsicle. It is, as you would guess, very sweet! But if you just have a small one it’s not so bad.

I’m happy to have finally crossed this experience off the to-do list. And I’m very happy that it’s finally feeling like spring is just on the horizon. This winter hasn’t been as hard as the previous was, but it’s nice to have reminders like this that this one, too, is coming to an end.

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