LONDON, Ont. -- There may be no signature ingredient more identified with Canadian cuisine than maple syrup, and with good reason. Canada produces about 85 per cent of the world's maple syrup. The only other place it's made is the northeastern United States.
The sap started flowing in acer saccharum -- sugar maple trees -- early this month and depending on the weather, the season may be winding down in more southern areas. But in other spots, particularly the eastern part of Quebec, it is just starting and could run until the end of April.
About 90 per cent of Canadian maple syrup comes from Quebec, with Ontario, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island making up the rest.
The best conditions for maple syrup are nights with temperatures a few degrees below zero and days a few degrees above, says Paul Rouillard, assistant director of the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers, based in Longueuil. The federation represents about 7,500 producers who tap sugar maples, plus some red and black maples, in hardwood bushes that stretch for 600 to 700 kilometres across the southern part of the province, says Rouillard.
In a good year, they will make about 45.5 million kilograms of the syrup. About 20 per cent of total Canadian production stays here and the rest is exported, most to the U.S.
Maple syrup is one of the few products to which nothing is added during processing. When the sap comes out of the tree, it is clear, slightly sweet and has the consistency of spring water, says Agriculture Canada. It is then boiled down to eliminate much of the water and concentrate the sugars. It cannot be called pure maple syrup unless the sugar content is at least 66 degrees Brix (a measure of dry matter in a distilled water solution). Further reduction of the sap crystallizes the solution and allows creation of treats such as maple taffy, maple butter and soft and hard maple sugar.
The syrup is scientifically graded by density (sugar content) and colour and is marketed as Canada No. 1 (extra light, light and medium), Canada No. 2 (amber) and Canada No. 3 (dark). But it is also graded by taste.
"We have here at the federation 25 people who taste and smell each drum or barrel of the production of the maple syrup," says Rouillard.
That's about 200,000 barrels a season or about 200 different syrups a day per person. They classify it by taste and smell, he says. The samples that don't pass muster are sold for industrial purposes. Like wine-tasters, they never swallow and must cleanse their palates after each tasting.
"I like very much maple syrup but I'd never do their job," he says.
While most people use maple syrup to top pancakes or waffles, chef Laurent Godbout of Montreal can't think of one food it doesn't go well with.
"I use it for everything. I can put it in appetizers, main courses, as well as desserts. You can use (it) for a vinaigrette or dressing with maple syrup or maple vinegar. You can glaze with that, you can marinate. There's many, many ways you can use maple syrup."
When he created the menu for the sugar shack eatery at Erabliere Shefford, a maple syrup producer in the Eastern Townships, he didn't forget "the classical menu of every sugar shack in Quebec," such as baked beans, maple smoked ham and, of course, pancakes. But he put some twists on other dishes to make them more fun. Instead of the traditional way of serving maple taffy on snow, for example, his taffy is served in a cup of brown apple slush.
"The apple juice has enough acidity to cut the sweetness of the maple taffy." He suggests that any time you're serving a dish made with maple syrup, it's a good idea to accompany it with something slightly acidic to balance the sweetness.
If you cook maple syrup dishes slowly at lower temperatures, it doesn't burn easily, he says. At higher temperatures, you have to watch it like other products with high sugar content.
He prefers to use amber syrup to cook with. It has the full rich flavour he wants.
Asked for a comparison between honey and maple syrup, he says he thinks maple syrup is "more delicate." But then he adds: "It's like a perfume. You don't want to use too much of it."
-- The Canadian Press
Roasted Acorn Squash Soup
2 acorn squash, halved and seeded
30 ml (2 tbsp) maple syrup
45 ml (3 tbsp) olive oil
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 small onion, chopped
1 large carrot, peeled and chopped
1 small Granny Smith apple, peeled and chopped
1 l (4 cups) chicken broth, plus 250 ml (1 cup) for thinning
1 ml (1/4 tsp) ground thyme
Pinch of nutmeg
Salt and freshly ground pepper
15 ml (1 tbsp) fresh lemon juice
Diced apple and fresh chives for garnish
Preheat oven to 200 C (400 F).
Brush cut side of squash with maple syrup and place cut-side down on a baking sheet lightly coated with 15 ml (1 tbsp) of the olive oil. Bake 45 minutes or until tender. Allow to cool, scrape out the squash flesh, set aside.
In a 4-l (4-qt) saucepan, heat remaining 30 ml (2 tbsp) of olive oil over medium heat. Add garlic, onion, carrot and apple. Cook for 5 minutes, then reduce heat to low and cover. Simmer, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes or until vegetables are soft.
Add the cooked squash, 1 l (4 cups) broth, thyme, and nutmeg. Simmer for 20 minutes. Allow to cool.
Once mixture has cooled, blend (in two batches) in food processor or blender until smooth. Reheat soup and season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper. Stir in fresh lemon juice and add more broth if soup is too thick. Garnish with apple and chives.
Makes 4 servings.
125 ml (1/2 cup) hot espresso coffee
375 ml (1 1/2 cups) maple syrup
125 ml (1/2 cup) liqueur (such as Triple Sec or Amaretto)
125 ml (1/2 cup) raisins
125 ml (1/2 cup) dried cranberries
6 eggs, separated
2 475-g tubs of mascarpone cheese, at room temperature
2 ml (1/2 tsp) vanilla extract
12 ladyfinger cookies, broken in half
125 ml (1/2 cup) walnuts, grilled and chopped (optional)
60 ml (1/4 cup) cocoa powder
60 ml (1/4 cup) maple sugar
In a bowl, mix together the espresso and 125 ml (1/2 cup) of the maple syrup, then add the liqueur and dried fruit. Set aside.
In a large bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form.
In another large bowl, beat the mascarpone, egg yolks, vanilla and remaining maple syrup. Carefully fold into the egg whites using a spatula.
Place 6 cookies in the bottom of a 3-l (12-cup) glass dish, then pour half of the dried fruit and coffee mixture evenly over the top. Sprinkle half of the nuts and spread half the mascarpone filling on top. Repeat to create a second layer. Refrigerate for at least 6 hours, then sprinkle with cocoa and maple sugar before serving.
Makes 12 servings.
Source: Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers
-- The Canadian Press