Spring in Montreal is really just a grubby looking winter. The huge mounds of leftover snow in the city have a crust of dirty ice, everywhere sounds like a dripping tap, the streets are covered in all the rubbish and dog poo that has been discarded in piles of snow over the past five months, parks have turned into depressing mud fields. Everything is grey and brown. Buds and bulbs wont start blossoming for at least another month. It is truly the most depressing season here, a huge contrast with the greens and whites and purples and yellows that I know are budding all over Scotland back home.
When will winter end? Why is it snowing Mid-April? Will we ever be able to wear nice shoes again? Why is the temperature oscillating between 10 degrees and minus 10?
Thankfully, spring has one saving grace: Maple syrup.
A single sugar maple tree can produce between 40 and 70 litres of sap in a season. When the countryside begins to thaw, the sap rises through the trees and can be siphoned out of the trunk simply by drilling a hole and sticking in a spile. The sap drips into a bucket attached to the spile and is collected daily to be boiled in huge vats to make syrup. It takes about 40 litres of tree sap to make one litre of syrup. A precious treat.
The best part about spring is the tradition of the “Cabane à sucre” or sugar shack – a gastronomic maple syrup festival that rivals Christmas for its pure and unashamed gluttony.
Last year, I popped by Cabane à sucre cherry by trying two very different maple munching experiences.
The first was the most traditional type. In an old barn in the middle of a forest, with Quebec folk music blaring we gathered with Hugo’s family on long tables and ate like piggies. On the menu was the traditional Quebecois Split Pea Soup, followed by what I can only describe as a mix between a brunch and a lunch and some pub snacks all on one plate: bacon, beans (not like Heinz Baked Beans, but a more traditional version made with lard), a big fluffy egg soufflé…but then also a pork pie, fried potatoes, preserved beetroots and a homemade ketchup…and then as if this wasn’t quite enough, the piece de resistance… pork crackling.
The pork crackling was a particularly big surprise as I couldn’t work out the translation when my fellow diners were explaining what was on the menu. Les “oreilles de Crisse” (Christ’s ears) did not sound very appetizing.
Let’s not forget that once you have all of this on your plate, it is a legal requirement in Canada to then douse it in maple syrup. Liberally.
It’s still not over. They then bring out pancakes and light-as-a-feather “grandpères au sirop”, a syrup sponge-type thing that has been cooked in a pot of – you guessed it – maple syrup.
Leaving the hall, you stumble into the daylight and try to take in gulps of fresh air to combat the sugar rush and self-disgust. You are sweating maple syrup and pork fat. You need to get away from the smell of syrup, which is being churned out by the vats boiling the stuff up behind the restaurant…but oh, what is this, a little tire de neige? Maybe just one, just to top it all off while you walk around the muddy grounds and give thanks to the maple trees for their bounty.
My second sugar shack experience took this gluttony to a very different level.
Au pied de cochon is a well known fancy restaurant in Montreal serving up modern takes on old Quebec favourites. Every year, they organise a pop up Cabane à sucre that is almost impossible to get a ticket to. I signed up in November in order for my name to go on the list to be put on the waiting list for the already fully booked restaurant. Thank goodness for flakey people as I did finally get the hallowed email telling me to phone the booking number before noon the next day to get a place.
What a meal. There is no menu, so going in, you don’t know how much energy to devote to each new plate being placed in front of you. There were six waves of food, each with four or five different plates and enough to feed us for three days on the left-overs we took back with us (frowned on in the UK but a norm here in Canada, everyone left with a tower of disposable containers).
The theme of the night was Japanese-Quebec fusion. There are no words to describe the spectacle and the tastes. Here is the list I wrote as each course came in, and bear in mind that this was just $65 each:
Massive stein of Maple beer (a rookie mistake, as it turned out, to take something so large and filling)
A little ball of fried foie gras because why the hell not… a harbinger of what was to come
Miso soup with mushrooms, noodles and fresh corriander, topped with foie gras and a lightly boiled quail’s egg
Lobster, pork and foie gras dumpling with lobster bisque
Salmon tartare served in a dome shape on a big block of ice with shrimp and seaweed crisps
Maple infused rice with caviar
Soy sauce with maple syrup to dip everything in
Fire roasted omlette with ham and a mustard bechamel
Baked potatoes with flaked cod and caramelised onions
Crepes made in duck fat covered in maple syrup
Green salad with maple dressing (in case you were wondering where the vegetables were)
Baked beans “Fevres au lard” and maple syrup
Roasted pig’s foot with maple glaze and barley risotto
Fowl stuffed with pork with maple sauce and creamy lentils
Petite salad with maple dressing
Chocolate stick with noisette like nutella that you smash with a ceremonial mallet
Earl grey ice cream with Japanese bean cake
Cheesecake pudding chomeur (a cake made of maple syrup, of course!)
Cream puff “Religieuse” (for those of you who watch The Great British Bake Off)
Maple taffy on a block of fleur de sel ice
Hot Sake infused with maple