Saturday, March 27, 2010

The sap is flowing...

2010 is going to be a bumper crop year for maple syrup!

The early, spring-like conditions and the continued night-time chills are the makings for abundant sap collection. Add to that the unusually warm El Niño winter we've had in the North East, and it spells the perfect recipe for delectable breakfasts! Indeed, most maple growers in Quebec are confirming that this year's sap is the tastiest it's been in decades. Apparently, the difference is astounding. Maple syrup in Ontario and New England are likely to taste markedly different too.

Don't go rushing to the supermarket for maple syrup just yet though. Whatever you will find on the shelves are remnants from previous years. The only way you can get you're hands on the 2010 harvest is to buy directly from maple growers (online or at a farmers' market), but do check that you are getting this year's crop before buying.

The price of maple syrup, however, is not expected to go down just yet. Even though 2009 was an abundant year, the reserves stocked by the Quebec Maple Growers Federation are not as high as they should be. With  a little luck, maple syrup will be a little cheaper next year. Obviously, the price of maple syrup in Quebec probably has little or no influence on the price of your local sap.  

My favourite way to consume this ambrosia is au naturel on crêpes, pancakes or French toast. Although the idea of sugar pie is always tempting, I must admit that anything more than a forkful is rather sickening. So  today, I offer you a bit of childhood nostalgia: maple taffy (tire). 

For those of you unfamiliar with the rituals of the sugar shack, maple taffy is a devil of a treat that only the very young (at heart) or the very brave dare to conquer. It is made from maple syrup boiled down until doubly concentrated and poured on a bed of pristine snow. The congealed mass is then picked up with a wooden stick and eaten as best one can manage. No matter how hard one tries to eat taffy in a civilized manner, one will end up sticky from head to toe! It is a yearly treat I like to indulge in, even though I always seem to get some in my hair.

I recently learned that you needn't trek out to a sugar shack (or a farmers' market in Quebec) to enjoy the travails of taffy: all you need is some maple syrup, a microwave oven and some snow (or crushed/ shaved ice).  I do not have a microwave oven, so I haven't tested this 'recipe', though it was obtained from a reliable source: boil 1 cup (250 ml) of maple syrup on high for 1 minute and 30 seconds -make sure you use a 2cup measure, and do not cover with cling film. Pour onto snow or shaved ice, pick up with popsicle sticks, chopsticks or whatever. Oh, and if you have long hair, remember to tie it back before attempting to eat taffy.

Bon app'!

11 comments:

  1. Ah - fond memories of the sugar shack school trips. Alas I didn't have that many springs in Quebec. I'll always remember your brother telling me that you could put maple syrup on ham.

    Personally, I love maple syrup swirled into natural full-fat yogurt.

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  2. I remember you, me and Kelly all sticky from taffy... Good times!
    Maple syrup is good anywhere... Even on ham,or bacon, scrambled eggs... What's the maple syrup like in Ontario?

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  3. Funny you should ask. I just got an email from another food friend telling me about a sugar shack just outside of Toronto! They are doing tours until April 11. I might just have to check it out and report back to you!

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  4. I'll be waiting for a report!

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  5. Hello, I don't know if you'll see this question about maple syrup to an old post of yours. If not I'll track you down through a more recent post, if you don't mind readers' comments. I've recently discovered your blog and am thrilled: a local (I'm in Montreal) walking encyclopaedia of food info who writes like a true poet. I'll have a lot of questions for you in times ahead, if that's all right, but for now, maple syrup, as out of season as the question is. I'm aware that Quebec maple syrup in particular is all from past years - apparently they have years of the stuff stockpiled. You mention being sure to get the fresh stuff from a sugar shack, but to be unhip for a moment, does it really matter? This is a sincere question I've always wondered about. Can one really tell the difference? Is there any difference in taste or nutritional value? Might this just be an unnecessary festishisation of the "fresh"? Any info would be greatly appreciated, and thanks for your diligent, informative and entertaining blog.

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  6. Hello there Tolderol!

    I love and welcome all reader's comments and questions! I'm so glad you asked!

    First things first: Quebec is the world's number one producer of maple syrup (in quantity, if not always in quality), which is why the Quebec Maple Growers' Federation -yes, there is such a thing, though that is probably not the correct name- tries to stockpile the sap in order to satisfy the world's appetite. However, 2007 was a terrible year, and most of the stock was bottled and canned, which explained the sudden price hike in 2008. 2008 was also a not-so-good year, and it wasn't until 2009 that the stock was properly replenished.
    Currently stocks are okay. While 2010 was expected to be a bumper crop year, the heat wave in April cut the season short, so stocks are not quite where they should be, and prices are not expected to go down anytime soon.

    The reason why I encourage people to buy the 'fresh stuff' is because the 2010 vintage is exceptional! The mild winter meant that the tree's bark was not frozen solid when the tap was drilled in, so this year's syrup is milder and lighter than usual, and has no bitter aftertaste, even in the darker grades. So it's really just a question of taste, just to see the rainbow of flavour that can come from the graceful sugar maple.
    It really isn't a freshness issue, 2009 was a really lovely vintage, and if you keep your syrup in the fridge it will keep for a really looooong time. But you will see a difference in flavour between the two vintages. There is very little variation in nutritional value, so in a way, you are right, I am kind of fetishizing maple syrup.
    I guess what I really wanted to emphasize was the whole concept of 'terroir', like they do in France for their local produce: each season, each year, is different from the one before and the one after; every region has a different mineral make-up in their soil. So we should embrace the variations in flavours; we shouldn't expect everything to smell, taste or look the same every single time we eat or drink it. A Vidal grape grown in the Montérégie is quite different from the ones from Niagara or the Okanagans. While that fact is understood by most wine drinkers, the notion is thrown out the window when it comes to maple syrup. And I think it's a little unfortunate
    As much as I advocate the social and environmental reasons for eating local, I am a foodie at heart, and taste is also at the part of the matter.

    I hope that answers your questions, Tolderol. And keep them coming! I like being kept on my toes!

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  7. Hello, and thanks for these remarks. I guess there are several things going on here. I always chuckle, a little sadly, when February rolls around and I see the maple syrup tents go up in the city's squares and the displays in the supermarkets, because of course the sap hasn't started flowing yet. As you point out in your post, that's *last year's* syrup. So on the one hand I'm saddened to see people not even stopping to think about what it is they're buying - not uncommon behaviour in a supermarket, alas. On the other hand, as far as the quality of the syrup itself, it may not really matter, and there may be a degree of snobbery in automatically saying "oh, that's last year's syrup, I'm not a dupe, I won't touch it". Unless, perhaps, one has informed reasons to believe that a particular year is better than another, although I'm a little sceptical of that when it comes to maple syrup. Do you think, if we sat you down with a blindfold and the 2010 crop and 2009 crop from the same producer, you could tell the difference? Or, more strictly in keeping with the "terroir" idea, a bottle from one producer and another from a different producer down the road? Try it with your friends and get back to us. And I'll be back with more questions, picking your brain for information and, who knows, maybe gently and playfully trying to trip you up a little from time to time. I'm glad you found this comment; now, like a chessboard, you'll have to wonder where I will pop up in your archives next.

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  8. You're right, there is nothing wrong with 'last year's syrup'. In fact, I am quite sure that the Maple Federation blends their stocks to even out yearly fluctuations. I did not mean it to be snobbery, simply a remark on how this year's maple syrup is different from other years, and if one is able to get a can or two, it might be of interest to compare.
    But to answer your real query, yes. There is a marked difference between this year's and last's syrup. I always buy my syrup from the same grower, and I always get Grade B. And this year's is markedly lighter in colour, and 'cleaner' in flavour. Does it make it better than 2009? Not necessarily, since I like my maple syrup on the dark and robust side. Would I be able to put specific vintages on a whole selection of samples? Probably not, but I, and anyone else tasting, would distinguish a difference, of that I am sure. Are my taste buds refined enough to notice the subtle differences between maple syrup from Rougemont and a batch from Montmagny? Perhaps not, but in an informal blind taste test, my co-workers noted marked differences between a generic 'Canadian Grade A Fancy' maple syrup available in London (UK) grocery stores, my private stash, and a batch from Maine. More recently, a co-worker remarked that the syrup we used at the restaurant was 'not too shabby for a generic, but my friend makes the best syrup!'

    You should try it, and get back to me -but don't get a can from the grocery store, get it from the market, with the sugar shack's label. In the meantime, I'll be waiting for your comments and queries!

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  9. Now hold on. There are a lot of variables in play here. Grades, for example. I too like my syrup dark and robust. In your informal taste test, was your private stash Grade A Fancy? If not, then of course your co-workers would notice a difference between them. The concept "terroir" suggests that Grade X might vary in subtle ways from one region to another. And it may very well be, like rum (have you ever had aged Nicaraguan Flor de Caña?) that a blended syrup will always be inferior to a well-produced D.A.O. But now I'm beginning to talk through my hat.

    By the way, the syrup production/marketing situation you allude to is very complex and contentious, although at its root is a basic problem of supply and demand, the latter far outstripping the former most years, leading to immense stockpiles in the recent past - I haven't been following the situation lately, so I don't know about the past three or four years. It's a classic dilemma, because the stated aims of the various marketing boards and tappers' associations is to secure a decent wholesale price for producers, which we can all agree is a good thing, but in trying to square the circle they have had to impose quotas etc., leading to the formation of a renegade association, lawsuits, massive surpluses, etc. For me to say any more I would - a common enough occurrence - once again be talking through my hat. Perhaps you can take this on as a little research project next March and fill us in on the current state of the industry, what ails it - and how to fix it!

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  10. Correction: that's the former (supply) far outsripping the latter (demand), not the other way around as I said in my remarks.

    And re-reading these remarks and your, I must insist that the terms of the debate have shifted a little. I asked if you could tell syrup from producer A and producer B apart, and you gave me a taste test between Grade A supermarket syrup and Grade B private stash syrup. Let's assume producer A and producer B both make good syrup, but one is in Vermont and one here in Quebec. If there's terroir in any of this, there will be a difference, it will be noticeable and, crucially, it will be consistent from year to year, forming an identifiable type, like wine or fruit. And, I would argue, one would be able to describe it - because if we can't describe something, does it exist?

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  11. I think this whole debate is going beyond my scope! All I can say is that taste is a very personal matter. So, while some people will hold fast to their preferred flavours, others will not distinguish any differences.
    In any case, I get the feeling that no matter how eloquently I'd try to describe different maple syrups, I would not be able to convince you that the differences are really there (and perhaps, they are not, maybe the variations are all in my head). But that's okay, you're entitled to your own opinion.

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