To join in a seasonal cabane à sucre (sugar shack) is a serious exercise in eating. Especially if you go for the full monty — a hefty feast of six or more courses built around maple syrup, pork, eggs and other local products. You need to work up a good appetite before dinner, walk some of it off before going to bed, and even then you’ll probably sleep upright to keep a swollen belly from bursting. It’s worth it.
Traditionally, a sugar shack is a house (hut or shack) in the woods where maple sap is collected and reduced to that viscous amber syrup. It takes hours and patience to turn the watery sap into syrup: roughly you need 10 gallons of sap to make 1 quart of syrup. Late winter, early spring is the best time to harvest sap: when the sap is frozen solid it won’t trickle down; too early in the winter season the sugars aren’t concentrated yet (sugars concentrate in frozen sap); too late in the season the sap runs too thin.
While working outside in winter, collecting full buckets and cooking off the excess water, the sugar shack is a place to stay warm and to keep your fuel levels up with pea soup, oreilles de crisse (deep-fried smoked pork jowl or pork rinds), omelets, baked beans and bacon, all drizzled with maple syrup.
In Quebec in ‘sugar season’, chef-run sugar shacks take these traditions a gastronomic step further.
One of the most famous chef-run sugar shacks in Quebec is Martin Picard’s Cabane à Sucre Au Pied de Cochon (also the title of his cookbook comprising of 100 recipes). Featuring in Canada’s Food Network series The Wild Chef, the iconic chef is celebrated for his regionally inspired food. Reservations often run out before you even realize they’re open, and the 2018 sugar season is already fully booked.
Close to Mont Tremblant — with its winter fun paradise of ski slopes, cross country and snow shoe trails — is La Tablée des Pionniers. This sugar shack in the Laurentian mountains serves up a celebration of traditional Quebecois cuisine in a seasonal menu created by chef Louis Francois Marcotte.
What to expect
Long, communal tables, merriment and an ongoing parade of plates of food. Last year’s menu at La Tablée des Pionniers included pea soup enriched with maple-whipped butter; mixed salad topped with crispy maple-cured bacon; there was pulled pork pate; ham sliced from the bone; a cheese curd omelet with local trout; maple-braised pork and sausages; baked beans with foie gras; maple and orange glazed slow-roasted duck wings; local cheese — the runny delicious kind, baked and drizzled with maple honey; and an irresistible dessert display of sticky toffee pudding with candied bacon, maple candy floss and maple-glazed beignets.
In a collaboration with local cider maker Verger Lacroix et Cidrerie, drinks available are a natural match and on the list is the must-try local cidre de glace—a viscous, fruity sweet ice cider that taste as if a hundred ripe apples were juiced to make just this one glass. Ice cider is made with apples that have been frozen and are full of concentrated sugars.
Where and when
Located an hour from Montreal, just off the #117 in Saint-Faustin-Lac-Carré, La Tablée des Pionniers is open in season only, roughly from February to mid-April. This year’s menu is yet to be announced. Find up to date information on how and when to reserve tickets on the website: www.latableedespionniers.