Sweet discoveries in Quebec
Despite five layers of clothes, I was shivering, and my teeth chattered as I stood outside a barn. It was overcast, windy, and minus 20 degrees Celsius. Flurries were already adding to the foot of powder on the ground. Instead of dashing inside to thaw, I was watching a man pour hot tablespoonfuls of sticky amber syrup on a layer of snow on a park bench.
I waited until the syrup cooled to form a gluey, chewy streak. As soon as it did, I twirled the tip of a wooden ice-cream stick over the golden ribbon and popped it into my mouth. My head filled with a buttery fragrance, the texture of the taffy transforming rapidly from marshmallow softness to cool, silky syrup, leaving a hint of warm aromatic sweetness, at once floral and woody, in its wake.
Until that moment, I hadn’t cared for maple syrup. I didn’t understand why people were fascinated by it. If I had to have a sugary drizzle, my reluctant sweet tooth preferred bitter jambul honey, or even the lightly sweet heady jasmine syrup my mom makes every summer. Then I visited Quebec this wintry February, and that magical memorable moment with an instant frost-dusted gummy maple popsicle changed my mind. I realized that I might still be able to appreciate what is often unfairly reduced to just a pancake topping.
Canada produces 80% of the world’s maple syrup; and Quebec, its French-speaking eastern state, produces about 70% of Canadian maple. Come spring, sugar shacks sprout up around the state, where the fresh maple sap is boiled and turned into syrup.
Later that cold afternoon, a sturdy white-bearded maple farmer explained the process to me. He described how the sugar maple tree converts water from melting snow into scented sap as winter eases. He told me about the tubes that collect sap from each of the 30- to 40-year-old trees in his sugarbush (plantation) and take it to an underground tank. He described how the flavour and colour of the sap and, consequently, syrup changes every day, going from light to dark through the season. Listening to him, I had an epiphany—I hadn’t cared for maple syrup until that day only because I had never really understood it.
Over the course of visits to maple shops, tastings, and multi-course meals that featured the sap in every course, I learnt much more. Maple sap is 98% water and only 2% sugar and minerals (like calcium, potassium and iron). A typical tap on a tree releases two drops per second and up to 12 litres a day, depending on how many taps it has. The larger the tree, the more taps it tolerates; the biggest trees can handle four. Food scientists haven’t tapped into the exact chemistry that gives maple its characteristic aroma. Which is why artificial “pancake syrup” sold on supermarket shelves around the world features ingredients like high fructose corn syrup, cellulose gum, fenugreek extract, artificial flavours, including methyl-cyclopentenolone and ethyl vanillin, caramel colour.
I came back with 5kg of maple. Maybe it was pancakes I didn’t care for too much.
Maple’s many forms
Maple water Pure sap is sold in paperboard cartons, like coconut water, and is just as refreshing, delicately sweet and delicious. I made short work of several packs.
Syrup In Canada, maple syrup is sold in three grades, each with a different flavour and varying uses. Back in Mumbai, I used my stash to make pumpkin and carrot soup, chicken poached in maple-d stock, maple-glazed pork belly, and maple caramel-coated popcorn. I even added it to coffee, tea, and an Old Fashioned cocktail.
Vinegar Maple syrup ferments into well-rounded fragrant but tart vinegar. I’ve added it to a salad dressing, made naturally sweet gastrique, put it in tomato-based pasta sauce, splashed it into soda and ice, and dipped crusty bread in maple vinegar and olive oil.
Maple butter This doesn’t contain butter, but looks creamy because it’s pure syrup that has been aerated by controlled churning. It’s beautiful on crackers.
Sugar and hard candy When syrup is reduced further, it crystallizes into sugar, used in different forms from fist-sized rocks to fine sugar. The talc-fine powder is delicious dusted on macarons and cheesecake, and is surprising as a cocktail rim. Larger crystals add crunch to cakes and brownies.