Maple syrup must be the Quebec flavour: tangy and sweet, seasonal, with a pungent aroma of the outdoors. Any Quebecer, whether native born or immigrant, who has not visited a cabane à sucre or tasted that first pull of thick, syrupy snow taffy, hasnt really arrived.
If you cant get to a sugaring-off party, try the Atwater market. Several farmers reps are already at their stands outside. On Saturdays, Louis Chartier comes in from the Lanaudière to sell aged maple wines; and, at Les Douceurs du Marché, René Lavallée and his staff sell an upscale bottled syrup from Clearys, a producer near Thetford Mines.
Maple syrup is usually available in different grades depending upon when it emerged from the tree. The first run of sap is paler and not as strongly flavoured as the runs that come later in our short season. The medium grades are darker although preferred by many because of their stronger, maple taste. The final runs are much darker. They can have strong woody flavours and are usually bought by food manufacturers as flavourings.
Until last weekend, I didnt give much thought to what kind of maple syrup I bought. But then, while sipping a sample of Vin Dérable, which makes for a very enjoyable apératif, Chartier strongly hinted that Beauregards medium was very good indeed. Lavallée recommended Clearys but also said he would soon have an excellent organic maple syrup coming in from the Townships. Obviously here was a world of maple syrup of which I had been completely unaware.
With the help of the flavourings tasting paneltwo kids and three parentswe decided to see if there were any real differences. We first tried Beauregard's clear and medium grades. Then we sampled some of Clearys medium and finally poured a shot of a thick dark syrup that had been stored in our freezer and taken out for pancake breakfasts. This last one was a medium grade from last year and we had always thought it tasted great.
Comparing the syrups, it was striking how the colours and aromas changed, even from one region to another. The best of the four was Beauregards #1 clear. It was only a few weeks old with a brilliant amber hue and subtle maple aroma. It was sweet but not cloying. The medium grade from Clearys was a little darker and almost as good; while Beauregards medium was sweeter with a definate smoky aroma. In comparison with these three, the batch from the freezer now tasted like brown sugar syrup. Well save it for muffin mixes or bbq sauce. It will never see a pancake again.
Traditionally, maple syrup tastings include munching on a piece of bread or even a pickle to refresh the palate. However our crew of tasters, which included a graduate of McGills faculty of agriculture, swabbed out their tasting glasses with their fingers, determined to get every last drop.
If you are keen to go to a cabane à sucre, look for Les Sucres au Québec at newsstands. This annual publication lists dozens of sugar shack restaurants throughout the province. Alternatively, check their web page.