Editor's Letter: March 2019

Maple syrup is more than just a taste of spring
Naomi Szeben
March 01, 2019
Written by
Though I’m from Quebec, I’m a city girl, through-and-through. Despite growing up in the concrete jungle and not in the countryside, I still know the difference between maple syrup and “table syrup.”
There’s a French-Canadian term for the latter: “Sirop de poteau,” which means, “wooden-pole syrup.” The explanation behind this term is flippant but funny: The genuine article comes from the sap of live maple trees, and the glucose-laden syrup in fun-shaped bottles taste as though they come from fence posts or telephone poles.

Despite the spotlight on sugar-reduction and low-sugar diets, there's still a lot of interest in sweeteners. Maple sugar and maple syrup appeases those who are looking for a clean-label product, and still thrills those who want a satisfying, and deeply nostalgic taste. Plant-based sweeteners are taking the centre stage, these days. From vegans who do not want white granulated sugar that has been bleached and refined through animal bone char, to healthy eating enthusiasts who want simple ingredients, maple sugar fits most needs.

Vegan bakeries like Sweets From The Earth use maple syrup as a thickener and a sweetener. Its use of maple is more than just a source of sugar; its distinctive taste is what sets it apart from beet sugar, unrefined cane sugar or date syrup as a sweetener.

As Canadians, maple syrup is our heritage. It features in many treats from tarte à sucre (sugar pie) to the nationally recognized butter tart. Some tourism companies have even launched gourmet food tours that feature the butter tart as the focus of foodie-centric tourism. The butter tart is gaining international attention, too. Some Americans who wouldn’t have access to butter tarts in their local grocery stores or bakeries love an excuse to head north of the border and sample the surprisingly diverse variations of the butter tart.

Whenever I visit my beloved “Noo Yawkuh” friends the first thing they ask for are butter tarts. When I ask what kind of butter tart they’re thinking of, they get flustered. “What new kinds do you have now?” There’s no limit to the imaginations of local bakers and innovative ingredients for creative chefs to use. We’re becoming more aware of what regional flavours mean to various parts of Canada, and the beauty of that is how it’s changing. Some bakers veer from so-called traditional flavours like raisins, currants and nuts in their pie fillings, and are adding chocolate, coffee beans or bacon in their tarts. Some are providing offerings to those who couldn’t partake due to health or ethical reasons, by creating gluten-free or vegan tarts.

Visions of pastry and freshly poured maple taffy glistening on white snow can make the idea of country living seem like the sweet life indeed. My husband, who grew up in Quebec’s picturesque Eastern Townships, associates running sap with hard work. He grew up in a time when trees were not tapped with tubing that siphoned sap directly into the tank. Dominic’s experience involved emptying pail after pail of clear, watery sap into a tank on the back of a tractor, and helping his grandfather boil the sap down to thick, liquid gold.

Despite a week or so of continuous labour where the whole family pitched in, sugaring off was also a time of revelry (possibly ramped up by a higher than normal blood sugar count). Dominic recalls long tables set with various hearty foods for visitors and the cabane à sucre’s workers to share, the chance to meet fellow villagers and, always, the sweet taste of maple that heralded the start of spring.  

City dwellers, weekend cottagers or country folk can all agree on one thing: Maple syrup is what makes our pastry sing.

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