Sugar Shacks

Maple taffy served to a couple at the sugar shack
Francis Gagnon

The joyful melody of fiddles, accordions, harmonicas and wooden spoons fill the air as local musicians play rigodon, creating a festive atmosphere. Sit along tables overflowing with traditional Québécois dishes that beckon with promises of full bellies.

Sugar Shack Traditions

Visiting a sugar shack is one of the best ways to celebrate the beginning of spring. Gathering in large rustic log cabins, families sit down to long tables with checkered tablecloths to enjoy a hearty maple-soaked meal of traditional Québécois cuisine.

There is often a small stage where local musicians play Québécois folk songs, rigodon and square dancing music. Soon, feet are tapping, hands are clapping, and smiles abound as people dance.

Outside, folks enjoy maple taffy on snow. Maple syrup is boiled, then poured in lines on clean snow. As it cools, popsicle sticks are used to roll the maple taffy into a chewy lollipop.

After eating all things maple, many walk off their meal, some simply enjoy the first warmer days while chatting, others go on a tour of the shack where the maple syrup is made or on sleigh rides (when offered).

The Art of Maple Syrup

Maple water is produced during spring through thawing and freezing when days are above 0ºC (32 F) and nights are below 0ºC (32 F). These stages create a pressure that allows the maple water to flow, which can then be tapped and collected.

Through the various stages of evaporation, maple water reduces into réduit (similar to sweet tea), then maple syrup, maple taffy, maple butter, soft maple sugar, and eventually hard maple sugar.

The Traditional Sugar Shack Meal

A hearty all-you-can-eat feast awaits when visiting a sugar shack. Most sugar shack menus include soupe aux pois  (pea soup), fèves au lard (baked beans), cretons (a spread made with minced pork and spices), oreilles de crisse (“Christ’s ears”, deep-fried pork jowls), omelettesham and sausages soaked in maple syruptourtière (meat pie), pickled beets, homemade red or green fruit ketchupcrêpes and, of course, a jug of maple syrup. For dessert? Some sugar shacks also add tarte au sirop d’érable (maple sugar pie) or grands-pères dans le sirop (a ball-shaped dough cooked in boiling maple syrup) on the menu.

Try not to fill up though, you’ll want to save room for the all-you-can-eat maple taffy that awaits outside!

A Delicious Souvenir

Maple syrup is similar to olive oil as there are various grades and colours of maple syrup. From light golden yellow which has a subtle sweetness to dark earthy amber with a richer taste.

How to Use Maple Syrup

While many reserve the use of maple syrup for pancakes or waffles, in Québec it is a natural sweetener that is a must in every pantry. Maple syrup can be used in all kinds of recipes from casseroles to sauces, salad dressings and meats. Of course, it is often used for cooking desserts and drizzled into coffee or tea.

A Brief History of Sugar Shacks

The collecting of maple water to use as a sweetener was first practiced by indigenous peoples who would tap maple trees each spring. 

Collecting maple water and turning it into maple syrup has been a familial tradition since its inception. During the sugaring-off season, days were filled with trudging through the snow to collect maple water from buckets. At night, families would gather for a meal of hearty homemade delights. As the food disappeared from the table, the house would fill with the sounds of fiddles and spoons, everyone drinking and singing. In time, the gatherings became too large to celebrate within a single house, and they eventually moved the fun into large wooden barns.

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