Maple Makeover

Rediscover the nation’s favourite condiment in daring dishes, gourmet grocery stores and sugar shacks that match kitsch with sophistication.

On July 30, 2012, one of the largest agricultural crimes in history was exposed in Saint-Louis-de-Blandford, Quebec, about two hours northeast of Montreal. The victim: the Global Strategic Maple Syrup Reserve. The haul: about 2.7 million kilograms of pure, golden maple syrup worth over $18 million. This great Canadian heist made international news (though it was often reported with a wink and a nod), even becoming the subject of a segment on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. But as much as the theft amused a global audience, it was also baffling: Who knew a breakfast condiment could command such a staggering sum of money?

From classic sugar shacks where syrup is drenched over every meal and eaten hot off the snow with Popsicle sticks, to the standard bottle or can in almost every kitchen arsenal, maple syrup has long been something delicious (if a touch mundane) for Canadians. That is until very recently, when maple syrup purveyors, producers and businesses began to elevate our national staple to something much more luxurious, not to mention less seasonal. From coveted artisanal batches of syrup to high-end sugar shacks that have gained global praise, maple-infused drinks to sweet-smelling perfume, the industry is raising its standards – and its reputation.

Golden years

“Single-origin” may be standard parlance in gourmet coffee and chocolate, but Ontario-based purveyor Drip is making it work for maple syrup. Unlike most large-scale producers that blend maple syrup from many different sources, Drip’s 100-percent organic maple syrup is all harvested from one forest north of Manitoulin Island. “We chose that area [because the flavour there] stood out to us as being the most intense and pure,” explains Drip founder and partner Scott Leder. “We decided to limit production to only what can be produced there to maintain the signature quality and taste.” Drip has also given the standard syrup packaging a serious upgrade with sleek, apothecary-style bottles that have made them stand out at home and abroad.

Another company taking their syrup very seriously is Montreal’s Société-Orignal. Owners Alex Cruz and Cyril Gonzales wanted to bridge the gap between farmers and chefs, bringing high-quality Quebec ingredients to restaurant kitchens as well as consumers. Curated offerings include raw honey and wild herbal tea, and their online manifesto asserts their intention to “accept nothing less than a fundamental shift in current agricultural norms.”

Société’s syrup, called Remonte-Pente (“ski lift”), comes from a forest of about 3,000 trees averaging 150 years old in the Frost Village of Quebec’s Estrie region. The sap is harvested manually from 50 lots and the syrup from each lot is evaluated blindly for quality and taste – a rarity considering the standard process of categorizing syrup based on colour. “It’s like wine and terroir – you get particular characteristics from the trees and their surroundings,” says Cruz, who formerly worked with Gonzales at Montreal’s DNA restaurant. “The 50 trees on top of a mountain are different from another 50 next to a lake. You want to embrace that, not erase it.”

It’s no wonder their 700-millilitre bottles go for $49 and are coveted by some of the best chefs in Montreal, Toronto and New York, who use it raw, like a finishing oil or an aged balsamic. (“It’s not just for pancakes,” says Cruz, “though it does taste great on them.”) Derek Dammann, chef and co-owner of Montreal restaurant Maison Publique, is a big advocate of not only Société’s syrup but also their practice of retracing how syrup was made in the past in order to proceed more thoughtfully in the future. “[The production] reflects how the maple syrup process used to be done. This forward-backward type of thinking makes their product shine. They take 10 steps back to move one forward. And the colour of a syrup doesn’t make a difference [to them], it’s all about taste.”

It’s not just for the pancakes, though it does taste great on them.” Alex Cruz

Chef Rob Gentile of Toronto restaurant Buca agrees. “Maple syrup is one of my favourite ingredients to cook with, and Société’s is the best one on the market. Spiking a good ragu bianco with some maple syrup adds amazing flavour and balance to game meats. Toss in wild mountain cranberries for a nice acidic pop.”

When asked about maple syrup, chef and Food Network star Chuck Hughes states simply, “It is basically liquid gold. It’s such a beautiful thing. In the restaurant, we use it in almost everything instead of sugar.”

The sweet ascent

Although Drip and Société-Orignal might be making syrup that brings the process back to basics, Noble maple products are out to get noticed. “There are a lot of maple purists out there, people who think nothing should ever be added to maple syrup. I’m not one of those people,” says Tyler Gray of Mikuni Wild Harvest, the West Coast-based distributor of Noble. “I think the aging techniques and the ingredients for flavour infusion only elevate the maple syrup experience.”

Noble uses maple orchards from heritage sugar shacks in Quebec for their Tonic 01 syrup. They age their syrup in Tuthilltown charred American oak bourbon barrels for five to eight months to produce a dark, smoky-sweet syrup that works as well in a cocktail as it would on pork belly; it’s on the menu at restaurants like Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry.

Gray also feels that the standard syrup grading system is becoming less relevant in reflecting quality products. “I think we are going to see less and less of an emphasis on light, medium and dark syrups in the classic bottles and jugs. Instead, we’ll continue to see creative marriages of flavours and unique branding taking place as the industry expands its view on what maple syrup should look and taste like.”

Larger companies, like the Quebec maple syrup co-op Citadelle, are also working on changing the face of the industry. But they’re doing more than tweaking the syrup or the bottle – they’re creating entirely new maple products. Inspired by molecular cuisine, Citadelle’s award-winning Maple Pearls resemble caviar in shape and size. Used as a garnish, they release small bursts of maple flavour and a jelly-like texture with every bite.

Chic shacks

In St-Benoît de Mirabel, about 45 minutes outside of Montreal, is chef Martin Picard’s Cabane à Sucre Au Pied de Cochon. Having put Quebec on the culinary map with his Montreal restaurant, Picard conveyed his boisterous, foie-gras-laden food and jovial atmosphere to the countryside and reinvigorated a Quebec cultural staple – not simply the ingredient, but the experience of sugaring off. Picard takes the traditional sugar shack fare up a notch (or 20), spiking almost everything with his own maple syrup made on the premises. His pioneering ethos baffles even his peers.

“He’s feeding his pigs maple syrup, he’s feeding his ducks maple syrup, I don’t even know what to say!” exclaims Dammann. “He’s changed the way cooking [with maple syrup] is perceived and what people are doing in restaurants and at home.” Although Picard is transforming the traditional sugar shack experience, he’s still kept it in the countryside. La Cabane, on the other hand, is taking a more stylish route within the city limits. The first pop-up “shack” set up shop five years ago in Montreal’s Old Port with guest chefs, a refined, maple-heavy menu – you won’t find simple syrup in the Coureur des Bois cocktail – and decor that’s kitschy-cool, including bundles of brightly coloured knit lampshades and brown paper menus stamped with pictures of animal pelts and snowshoes.

“It’s like we’re just waking up and realizing we have this amazing product,” says owner Michel Leroux, who adds that La Cabane also emphasizes other provincial delicacies like apple cider and locally raised pork. “It’s about elevating Quebec’s chefs and products as a whole and giving them a spin.”

Whether it’s going back to tradition or taking a modernist approach, the Canadian maple syrup industry is broadening its culinary appeal beyond the breakfast table. Call it a golden era for maple syrup or perhaps just a moment in the spotlight for a local standby, but there is no denying this once humble industry is undergoing a serious makeover.

As for the great maple syrup caper, several people were taken into custody and some, but not all, of the syrup was recovered. There’s also a movie in the works, with Jason Segel (How I Met Your Mother) slated to star. And while much of the world joked about this crime against Canadiana, it did highlight a very good point: Maple syrup is a valuable commodity that not only helps define our culture and reflect tradition, but is also a new benchmark  for culinary innovation.

Pascal Wehrlein
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