I was reminded recently that.... Sugaring off season is ON!
I always loved when it got to about the middle of February - great skiing and could often wear just a sweater with my ski pants, snow is wet enough to make awesome snow sculptures with the kids, and - a spring ritual that I looked forward to all winter - the maple sap run and sugaring off season.
Let's hope it has a decent run, as the temperatures have been unseasonable cold this year. To get a good run of maple syrup it takes cold nights and sunny warm-ish days for the month of February on. When the two are in the right balance a maple syrup producer can have a very good year.
The season is short, usually February through April. Most syrup is made from the sugar maple tree, but some places in Canada and the US make syrup from other species of maple and from birch trees.
Many producers of maple syrup have a Sugar Shack, or as they say in Quebec... Cabane à Sucre. The first sugar shacks were just a rough cabin out in the maple tree forest where the sap was collected and boiled down to make the syrup. Neighbours would help with the process, most likely for a share in the syrup. To celebrate the season friends and family would be invited to share "la tire sur neige" or syrup boiled down to make a toffee and poured over fresh snow. This is the favourite of kids and adults alike... it is rolled up from the snow on a wooden stick and eaten while still warm. Mmmmmmm!! Stick-to-your-teeth-and-the-roof-of-your-mouth goodness!!
I have been to quite a few sugar parties in my time, and when my kids were in school I worked at a sugar shack that was open on weekends, and maybe the odd day for a party. These days the traditional menu at a Quebec sugar shack may include any of these foods: ham, tortière (meat pie), omelettes, backed beans, boiled potatoes, grilled salt pork, "oreilles de crisse" (sometimes called Christ's ears, consisting of deep fried pork rinds), cretons (a family favourite pork spread I make often), habitant pea soup and pancakes. To top it off for desert you may see on the menu grand-père au sirop d’érable (a kind of dumpling boiled in maple syrup), sugar pie, pouding chômeur (cake made with hot maple syrup poured on the batter before baking) - and of course la tire.
On the 1851 Canada Census agricultural form, the column 40 heading was for Maple Syrup in pounds. Even though none of my family ancestors produced maple syrup, many of their neighbours did.
When I first moved west my new friends had never been to a sugar shack or sugaring off party. What?? So I decided to host one in our back yard to give them a taste of my home. I got some maple syrup from Quebec and put everyone to work preparing a Sugar Shack menu including scrambled eggs, pancakes and grilled salt pork. I gave everyone a can of syrup to take home, and it was a huge success!
When I later moved to the Island I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the Francophone community of Nanaimo held a Maple Sugar Festival every year about mid-February, trucking snow in from nearby Mount Washington for la tire.
If you have never experienced a sugaring off party, try to plan a visit to a maple producing city during the Maple Season, or host your own sugar party to chase away the winter blues. If your ancestors lived in or visited one of these maple producing regions, more than likely they attended a sugaring off party or perhaps produced maple syrup from the trees on their own land.
1851 Canada Census - Schedule B Agriculture
US Agricultural Schedules of Federal Census
Laboratory of the Inland Revenue Dept, Ottawa - Maple Syrup Vendors
The Maple Sugar industry in Canada 1913
Maple Syrup - info and regions that produce maple syrup
Top Regions Producers of Maple Syrup
Best Maple Syrup Farms and Festivals in Canada
The History of the Maple Syrup Making Process - NJ
Celebrate all things maple n Canada - blog
Members of the International Maple Syrup Institute
Host a Sugar Shack Party - Canadian Living
Vermont Maid Syrup Recipes
Vintage Catalogues - Dominion & Grimm
Photos of Sugar Shacks on Flickr from LAC *New