The snow is melting, the streets are covered in grey, gloopy slush, and the fluctuating temperatures and weather conditions make getting dressed in the morning a confusing task, but one simple thing makes spending March in Quebec completely worthwhile: the sugar shack.
A visit to a sugar shack, or cabane à sucre, heralds the start of spring in Quebec. It’s around this time—February to April—when maple trees are tapped for their sap, which is then reduced into syrup. Sugar shacks have traditionally served as the base for producing syrup, and during maple season, Quebec’s shacks are known for serving up family-style meals full of hearty, heavy Quebecois fare; you’d be hard-pressed to find any sort of clean eating going on inside the walls of a cabane à sucre.
Each year, E-QIP introduces students to this mouthwatering local tradition with a visit to one of the region’s beloved shacks to mark the season of “sugaring off,” as it's known. This year’s visit to the Domaine Labranche cabane à sucre in Saint-Isadore will take place tomorrow, March 22, and whether you’ll be joining us or plan on checking out one of the region’s many sugar shacks on your own, the following points of information will help you get the most out of your first visit.
Contrary to popular stereotypes, the people of Quebec don’t just go around putting maple syrup on everything… except when we do. Much like Buddy the Elf, Canadians don’t confine maple syrup to the breakfast table. The typical sugar shack menu is often all-you-can-eat, and includes traditional Quebecois staples like pea soup, cretons (a pork-based spread), sausage, baked beans and tourtiere, and much of it either contains or is best served drenched in the sweet stuff (followed by maple taffy for dessert, naturally).
Cabanes à sucre are traditionally found in the sugar bush, the rural areas where maple trees are cultivated and tapped for sap, but that doesn’t mean you have to drive for hours to get your maple fill. There are a number of shacks within a stone’s throw of Montreal, and increasingly, pop up spots allow city dwellers to indulge in a maple-drenched meal without ever having to leave the island.
While the traditional sugar shack meal is about as vegetarian-friendly as a boucherie, growing requests for dietary restriction-friendly fare has inspired the introduction of a number of veggie offerings; one cabane à sucre near Montreal, Sucrerie du Domaine, has even introduced vegetarian tourtiere and creton, and the Cabane à sucre Handfield offers a fully vegan, gluten-free menu.
A true sugar shack experience is defined not only by the food served up, but also by the surrounding environment—one that’s often loud, a bit chaotic and heavy on rustic charm. Guests are typically served at long, family-style tables, brushing shoulders with friends and strangers alike and filling the wood cabins with chatter. The best part? There’s always someone nearby to pass the maple syrup.