Making maple syrup — Photo courtesy of M. Rehemtuall for QUOI Media Group
Maybe it’s because I grew up just north of the U.S. border with Canada (yes, thanks to some weird bit of geography, you actually have to drive south from Detroit to reach our northern neighbors), but I always thought Canada got a bad rap.
Before the recent years when Justin Trudeau and free healthcare were making a record number of Americans apply for Canadian citizenship, we were mostly making fun of our far more polite neighbors for their cops in those crazy red uniforms and the ridiculous way they say “about.”
But, really, Canada is a beautiful country with delightful people, world-class cities, and wide open spaces. The weirdest thing about it, actually, might be the fact that Canada is obsessed with maple syrup.
If you need proof of Canada’s obsession with maple syrup – or at least the tree from which it originates – you needn’t look any further than the country’s flag.
If you’ve never been to Canada or even watched the Olympics, you probably still recognize that iconic red and white rectangle with a red maple leaf in the middle. And if you’ve ever traveled outside of the U.S., you’ve almost definitely run into some overzealous Canadian with a flag pin on his hat or a flag patch on her backpack, or a couple wearing matching Roots shirts with maple leafs on them.
Yes, this is partially because they want to let the world know they’re not Americans, but it’s also because they’re really, really proud of their underrated homeland.
Collecting the sweet water — Photo courtesy of Michael Rathwell
Canada produces more maple syrup than the rest of the world combined – 72 to 80 percent depending who you ask – and Canada’s liquid gold is worth more than oil. By many, many times.
Quebec alone, which produces something like 90 percent of Canada’s maple syrup, has more than 13,000 maple syrup producers who collect the sweet water that runs from trees. Then, they boil it down until it goes from a sugar content of between 2 and 8 percent to just under 70 percent.
That means that it takes about 40 gallons of maple sap to make one gallon of maple syrup. That’s why this labor-intensive product costs about $1,300 per barrel. And why it’s so coveted.
The Great Canadian Maple Syrup Heist
Golden syrup — Photo courtesy of LadyDragonflyCC - >;<
If you were to write a satire about a Canadian crime caper, you probably couldn’t come up with anything better than some cartoon bandit reminiscent of the McDonald’s Hamburglar plotting to steal all of Canada’s maple syrup.
Oh, wait. That actually happened.
Eye mask and bandalero hat notwithstanding, a group of thieves did boost a whopping 540,000 gallons of syrup worth more than $13 million. The culprits were eventually captured and the syrup recovered. More importantly, there is now a film in the works starring Jason Segel.
Different grades of syrup — Photo courtesy of Glass_House
Where did the thieves manage to find all this syrup, you ask? Why would so much syrup be in one place?
Because Canada has a maple syrup reserve, which, before you get the wrong idea, is not a pristine nature reserve that has a river of maple syrup running through it, but a place where an insane amount of maple syrup is stored.
Some countries have oil reserves. Canada, being the country of well-behaved peaceful people that it is, prefers to store thousands of gallons of something a lot more harmless.
Just as the oil-rich countries have OPEC, Canada has FPAQ (Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers), which inspects, tastes and grades the syrup. The four very specifically described grades range from Golden, Delicate Taste to Very Dark Color and Strong Taste.
Iced maple syrup — Photo courtesy of snowpea&bokchoi
Most of Canada’s supply of maple syrup gets exported – there are only 36 million people in one of the world’s least densely populated countries (there’s roughly one maple producer for every 2,500 people), after all – but Canadians do their part to consume their most delicious export by eating it on pretty much everything.
It goes way beyond pancakes. Think root vegetables, ice cream, in coffee, and in just about any product you can think of.
Starbucks recently released a maple macchiato. Lays produced maple potato chips (seriously). You can find pure maple water at any convenience store.
During maple season, the streets of Quebec are filled with stands selling maple candy, maple butter, and - a personal favorite - maple taffy made by pouring hot syrup over crushed snow, and then eaten off a stick.
Cocktail bars across the country serve “Canadian” versions of classic cocktails. Want a Canadian Old Fashioned? A Canadian mojito? A Canadian julep? Just sub simple syrup for maple syrup – or in some cases use maple whiskey or maple liqueur (also popular spirits in Canada).
Sugaring off season
A sugar shack — Photo courtesy of solylunafamilia
During “sugaring off” season, that time of year when the sap runs, it's like a big party at “sugar shacks” on maple farms across Quebec.
From late winter through mid-spring, there are sleigh rides, live folk music and dancing, and – most importantly – maple themed meals that consist of foods like pea soup, ham, sausage, meatballs, meat pies (tourtières) and baked beans – all doused in...well, you can guess at this point.
Some restaurants have even gotten in on the action, taking things one step further. Take Montreal's famously gluttonous Au Pied de Cochon, for example. Chef Martin Picard has leveraged his extra indulgent approach to maple syrup, opening up a sugar shack of his own in 2010 to serve dishes like maple-drowned foie gras and maple cotton candy, along with bloated (and delicious) versions of classics.
Removing water prior to boiling — Photo courtesy of Shannon McGee
So how did this obsession begin? Well, Canada’s maple syrup origin story sounds a tiny bit like the version of the Thanksgiving story that Americans grew up learning in school.
It goes something like this: Native Americans in Quebec showed French trappers how to tap maple trees to collect the sweet, watery sap. Then the French brought over the cast-iron pots used to boil the sap into maple syrup. Without the cooperation of both sides, the story goes, we wouldn’t have maple syrup.
Is this story true? Who knows. There’s evidence that Native Americans were consuming maple syrup before any settlers came to their land, but the legend certainly makes maple syrup even more of a feel-good point of national pride.