By Gabby Peyton
That red maple leaf on Canada’s national flag isn’t just for show. The country loves maple syrup, and for good reason. We make the most of it in the world — 70 per cent of the earth’s maple syrup comes from Canada (in 2020 more than 14 million gallons were produced), and 90 per cent of that comes from Quebec alone. Needless to say, the production and consumption of Canada’s sweetest resource is a huge part of our culinary memory.
The history of maple syrup
Long before the arrival of English and French settlers, Indigenous peoples were tapping trees and harvesting the sweetness of the sugar maple in Eastern Canada. The Abenaki, Haudenosaunee and Mi’kmaq used the sweet water from the trees to cook and preserve food, and it is the Anishinaabe who coined the term “sugaring off” that is ever-present in syrupy vernacular, even today.
By the 1500s, the Indigenous people not only showed the French settlers how to tap the maple trees across Quebec, but also which trees to tap and the crucial timing of when to tap them, an essential component to harvesting maple syrup: it must be done in the spring months, or the sugaring off season after that sap has sweetened up all summer inside the tress. It also best in the spring months when temperatures are above 0°C during the day and below freezing at night. It’s probably the most seasonal seasonal harvest there is in Canada.
Throughout the 1700s and 1800s, maple syrup production and industrialization grew rapidly, as did the methodology and technological advances around the spring harvest. By 1850, the first sugar shack was born, and by 1932, maple butter was invented. It wasn’t until 1951 that those iconic cans of maple syrup depicting an idyllic late-winter scene started to appear on grocery store shelves, and it’s now a huge industry worth almost half a billion dollars with cans of Canadian liquid gold being shipped all over the world.
The Sugar Shack is a place we get together
There are still more than 8,600 maple syrup producers across the country, and while most of them are from Quebec, there are some in the Maritime provinces. Many of the farms are still family-run businesses offering up a variety of tourism options in addition to maple syrup production. Visiting the “cabane à sucre” or sugar shack, have become ubiquitous with springtime in the northeastern part of North America, particularly in Quebec.
A yearly pilgrimage to the sugar shacks during the sugaring off months has become a time-honoured tradition in Quebec and the Maritimes. In addition to sleigh rides and hikes through the maples, you really go to a sugar shack to eat. Families and friends feast on breakfast and lunch dishes like pea soup, baked beans, oreilles de crisse (otherwise known as “Christ’s ears” which are deep-fried pork jowls), crepes and, of course, maple-infused treats like the all-you-can-sweet maple taffy pulled on fresh snow. There’s also maple sugar pie, grands-pères dans le sirop (dumplings cooked in maple syrup), and sometimes, pouding chômeur.
The sweet history of Pouding Chômeur
Pouding chômeur, or “poor man’s pudding” in English, was created by women who worked in factories during the depression in Quebec. With limited access to ingredients, the almost-sickly-sweet dessert was the result of necessity: it is a simple and cheap dessert that fed a lot of people.
Over the years it has evolved from a Sunday night family favourite to a restaurant offering at Quebec’s most prestigious eateries like Au Pied du Cochon. The comforting and deliciously sweet dessert will warm bellies anywhere.
Maple Pouding Chômeur Recipe
- 1 1/2 cups pure maple syrup
- 1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
- 1/2 tsp kosher salt
- Preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C) with the rack in the middle position.
- To make the maple sauce. In a medium saucepan, whisk maple syrup, heavy cream and 1/2 tsp kosher salt together. Bring to a boil, and let simmer for a few minutes, whisking occasionally so it doesn’t stick. Pour the sauce into a buttered 9 x 13-inch (22 x 33 cm) baking dish. Set aside.
- To make the cake batter: In a small bowl mix flour, baking powder and salt.
- In another small bowl, combine milk and vanilla extract. Set aside.
- Using a stand mixer, beat the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy, then mix in the eggs one at a time. Mix in the dry ingredients slowly at a low speed, then the milk mixture until just combined.
- Carefully spoon the batter over the hot sauce in the baking dish.
- Bake for 30-45 minutes until the top is golden brown and the sauce is bubbly around the edges of the pan, or until a toothpick or knife inserted into the middle comes out clean
- Serve with whipped cream, vanilla ice cream, more maple syrup, or some crumbled nuts.
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