I don’t usually do fluffy human interest stories, but this one was irresistible. It contains two of my favorite things – Canadians and food.
Martin Picard is one of Canada’s top chefs, owner of the Au Pied de Cochon in Québec. Every year, he heads out of the city, just under forty miles west, to a cabin in the woods in the middle of a 3,000-tree sugarbush. That’s a stand of sugar maple trees, tappable for their spring sap from which maple syrup is made. The process is very old. One sticks a hollow spigot into the tree and if the weather co-operates, warm days, sub-freezing nights, the sap runs in the tree and out through the spigot. Old spigots were made of metal and had a hook on the underside for hanging a bucket. Today, the spigots can be metal or hard plastic and are hooked to plastic tubing which collects all the sap from a group of trees into a central tub. The sap is then transported to the sugaring house where it is boiled down to make syrup. It takes a whole lot of sap to make a single gallon of syrup, as in between 20 and 50 gallons of sap depending on quality. The resultant syrup is graded with the best grade a very thin, very pale syrup and grade B closer to what you get in a bottle of Mrs. Butterworth’s. Maple syrup can then be processed into maple sugar which is very sweet and can be packed into maple candies.
Back to the Québecois woods….Chef Picard spends three months in his sugarbush, creating new recipes which explore every possible aspect of maple in haute cuisine. And he runs a restaurant in the sugarbush so that his legion of fans can be human guinea pigs for his experiments in mapleology.
I could have saved him the trip.
Among my cookbooks are a pair of Vermont publications. One was done by Vermont Life magazine about forty years ago and the other was produced by a local church’s ladies’ auxiliary as a fund raiser about the same time. The church book’s cover is adorned with one of the most recognized drawings in Vermont – the old farmer in his sugarbush swapping out maple sap buckets.
Trust me, there is nothing Vermonters have not put maple syrup into and on over the course of 200 years. You want a little haute cuisine? How about a crême brulee topped with granulated maple sugar? It creates a super-sweet, beautifully browned crust. There are recipes for using maple syrup and sugar with every imaginable type of meat, including a few even Picard hasn’t tried, and he makes jackrabbit stew, as well as in salad dressings, sauces, every type of vegetable and, of course, desserts. Vermont’s version of a pecan pie, with a maple sugar base is awesome. We are not, however, responsible for my Southern son-in-law’s favorite maple product – a maple sugar-jalapeno topping for grilling. The less hot version is a maple-pepper seasoning. Those come from Maine.
Picard opens reservations for his sugarbush on December 1, and opens the restaurant in late February. This year, he had over 13,000 reservations in the first few days.
But what caught my eye in the story I received from my Canadian news feed was a effusive paragraph about Picard’s experiments with an ice cream topping…a maple taffy that he makes by taking fresh, warm maple syrup and pouring it over fresh snow.
We call that “sugar on snow.” It’s a sugaring season treat that we make gathered around kitchen tables with baking pans full of snow and a pile of fresh, hot doughnuts, preferably cake-style, not sugared. You do not need to live in sugaring country to enjoy this. You just have to be willing to shell out up to $50 a gallon for real Vermont maple syrup and have a good, clean, deep snowfall. Just warm the syrup to around 110°.
There is one thing Picard has never done and probably never will. It’s for adults only. Take one part maple syrup, one part brandy and three parts milk. Heat gently to a comfortable drinking temperature. It’s a fabulous cough syrup.
If you would like to explore maple syrup and how it can be used, you don’t need to travel to Québec. Check the Vermont State tourist website. Every one of our local fairs has a maple house and we have a couple of maple festivals every year. You will also find maple in use in our family-owned and chef-owned restaurants. I particularly like a small lunch counter in Woodstock that uses the maple syrup in a traditional way — sort of. The make a Monte Cristo with Vermont ham and Vermont cheddar cheese, dipped in milk and eggs, fried like French toast and drenched in real Vermont maple syrup, pure, sweet Grade A syrup.