Sugaring Off in Montreal: The Maple Syrup Basics

Montreal Likes Maple Syrup... And Sugar Shacks

Roll frozen maple syrup close-up
••• Fran├ºois Pilon/Getty Images

Written by Evelyn Reid - According to the Quebec Federation of Maple Syrup Producers, 71% of the world's maple syrup is produced right here, in the province of Quebec's cabanes à sucre. And a sizeable chunk of Quebec's maple products are gobbled up right here, in Montreal.

In fact, the province of Quebec consumes more maple products per capita than anywhere else in the world. And to anyone who has ever tasted sweet maple sap in its many forms, can you honestly blame us?

Cabane à Sucre Option #1: The Montreal Urban Sugar Shack
Sugaring off is a cultural rite-of-passage in Montreal. A short-lived season that varies every year, somewhere from late February to early May, perhaps the best known activity, apart from visiting a sugar shack, is eating hot maple taffy on fresh snow. Maple taffy stands start appearing in town around early March outside select metro stations, at Parc Jean-Drapeau and at the Jean-Talon Market while urban sugar shacks offering in some cases a traditional cabane à sucre meal usually kick off their season in March, sometimes April. And while they all soothe urgent maple cravings, they also bring up nostalgia for an authentic sugar shack, or cabane à sucre, experience.

  • Montreal Urban Sugar Shacks to Check Out

 

Cabane à Sucre Option #2: The Traditional Sugar Shack Experience
Let's face it. The real sugaring off happens outside Montreal, in the 200 or so sugar shacks spread out across the province of Quebec.

From sleigh rides to learning how maple syrup is made to checking out sugar shack mini-farms, there's plenty to do before stuffing up on the pièce de résistance, the all-you-can-eat maple-drenched dinner. For example, take what I consider the most interesting sugar shacks one hour from Montreal. They propose activities as varied as massages, cross country skiing, pony rides and line dancing.

  • Nine Traditional Sugar Shacks Near Montreal

 

The Sugar Shack Meal
So locals already know what to expect. But for anyone new to Montreal and the very concept of offing sugar, here's a breakdown of what you can expect at your first sugar shack meal (unless you go to madman Martin Picard's Sugar Shack Au Pied de Cochon, where you can expect pretty much anything).

Written by Evelyn Reid - Show me a native Montrealer and I'll show you someone who's been to a sugar shack. With the province of Quebec recognized as the leading producer of maple syrup worldwide, it's no wonder visiting a cabane à sucre is part of the Montreal experience, beckoning local and tourist participation every late February through early May.

Indulging in sleigh rides, eating maple taffy on snow, stuffing one's face with all-you-can-eat traditional food complemented by either live folk music or an awkward dance mix -ever wolf down sugar shack pancakes and baked beans with Enigma playing in the background?

I did. It was weird- all sugar shacks are not made equal, yet in spite of some eccentricities, I've never heard of a bad sugar shack experience, much in the same way I've never heard "maple syrup" and "yuck" in the same sentence.

So it was particularly difficult narrowing a list of about 200 cabanes à sucre down to the following nine unique sugar shacks near Montreal, all within one hour's drive of the city. 

Looking for a sugar shack within city limits? Try these urban sugar shacks.

 

1. Ride the Sugar Shack Steam Train
Cabane à Sucre Bouvrette
A great sugar shack for kids, Cabane à Sucre Bouvrette is equipped with a steam train.

2. Massage and Maple Syrup
Cabane à Sucre Handfield
Cabane à Sucre Handfield is one of the few sugar shacks near Montreal where you can book a spa treatment or massage prior to a traditional sugar shack meal, complete with live fiddler. Overnight accommodations also available.

3. Upscale Insanity
Sugar Shack Au Pied de Cochon
Chef Martin Picard of Au Pied de Cochon (French for "at the foot of the pig"), the mastermind behind what's arguably one of Montreal's ten best restaurants, turns high-fat depravity into an art form on a near daily basis, with a nutritionally disturbing tendency to slather/bathe/corrupt every dish on the menu, including dessert and poutine, with foie gras.

Extending his decadent empire in 2009 to include maple products, sugar Shack Au Pied de Cochon was born, serving traditional sugar shack fare with a twist.

4. Unlimited Hot Taffy
Érablière Denis Charbonneau
A sugar shack and an apple orchard, Érablière Denis Charbonneau (a.k.a. Verger Denis Charbonneau) offers not only a traditional all-you-can-eat sugar shack style menu, complete with baked beans, tourtière and pork rinds but also proposes à la carte apple-centric menu items such as apple crêpes and veal with applesauce, a rarity in sugar shack land. But you have to order them separately as they're not included with the sugar shack meal. And kids will LOVE Charbonneau's unlimited hot taffy on snow. There's also the possibility of pony rides and mountain hiking in the woods across the street.

5. Ski All Day and Stay Overnight ... Or Just Pig Out
Sucrerie de la Montagne
Enjoy the old-fashioned appeal of Sucrerie de la Montagne, built on a 200-year-old heritage site. Cross-country ski on 25 km of available trail and complement your sugar shack meal with an overnight stay in a log cabin.

6. Hop on a Pony or Visit the Maple Museum
Cabane à Sucre Paquette
Recommended for families. Ask the staff to dress up in pioneer costumes, visit the Maple Museum, enjoy a pony ride and other fun activities at the Cabane à Sucre Paquette.

Wheelchair accessible.

7. Five Star Sugar Shack Meal
L'Hermine Maître Sucrier
Enjoy a sleigh ride followed by one of the best sugar shack meals in Quebec, at award-winning L'Hermine Maître Sucrier. Wheelchair accessible.

8. Eat Maple Syrup AND Improve Your Batting Average
Cabane à Sucre des Sportifs
Can't say this is the most authentic sugar shack, but sports types will love it. The Cabane à Sucre des Sportifs offers indoor hockey facilities and is also equipped with a baseball batting machine and a dining hall large enough to host corporate events.

9. Singles Night and Bingo Under the Same Sugar Shack Roof
Érablière Le Rossignol
From bingo night to meeting your soul mate, Érablière Le Rossignol is not your typical sugar shack. Only 30 minutes from Montreal.

 

Montreal Urban Sugar Shacks
Written by Evelyn Reid - While nothing beats an authentic sugar shack experience at one of Montreal's off-island cabanes à sucre, maybe you just want to try something a little closer to home. The following Montreal sugar shacks and hot taffy stands are all located on the island of Montreal. And though most don't serve full-scale traditional meals, they're the perfect antidote for those pesky maple syrup cravings.

 

  • Montreal Botanical Garden
    Every year, the Montreal Botanical Garden proposes a sugar shack experience minus the country air and traditional meal. Learn how maple syrup is made, eat hot maple taffy on snow, buy maple products and take in the Garden's Treehouse exhibits. Most suitable option for people from out-of-town, families and centrally-located residents using public transit. While you're there, consider planning a visit to the Insectarium, the Biodome and the Planetarium.
    When: usually open every day of the first week of March (spring break), and every subsequent weekend of March
    Cost: call (514) 872-1400 for details
    More INFO

 

  • Le Richmond's Brunch à l'Érable
    Dreaming of an upscale culinary experience that evokes the sugar shack more than it emulates it? Try Le Richmond's maple brunch March 11, 12,  18, 19, 25, and 26, 2017 at 10 a.m. Last year's a la carte options included a seared foie gras dish served with blood pudding terrine, arugula salad and French toast ($18), maple glazed cold smoked trout ($15) and maple glazed cornish hen ($22). Menu items and prices subject to change.
    Cost: varies from $11 for a fruit platter to $45 for a sharing platter
    More INFO

     

       

      • Old Port Sugar Shack: Scéna's Un Chef à l'Érable
        Want upscale food but with a rustic vibe? Enjoy a five-course maple-centric menu for $63 per person, $20 for kids under age 12. Dishes include maple syrup won ton soup, deviled eggs with salmon smoked over maple wood, and braised pork cheeks with green beans, pecans and feta.
        When: from March 10 to April 16, 2017 
        Cost: $65 per person, $25 for children
        More INFO

       

      • Jean-Talon Market
        Much like the Montreal Botanical Garden, the Jean-Talon Market isn't a sugar shack per se. There aren't any traditional sugar shack meals on offer at the moment either, BUT it's a great place to stock up on maple syrup and enjoy some hot taffy served on snow. Like clockwork, there's a hot taffy stand set up every March and April, and sometimes as early as late February.
        Cost: information available on location, usually about $1.50 to $3 per stick of hot taffy
        More INFO

       

      • Cap St. Jacques
        Cap St. Jacques, a massive park located on the western tip of the Island of Montreal, can be a bit out of the way if you don't live in the area, but it can be reached with public transit and the park has a lot to offer visitors: this is the closest experience to a day at a sugar shack in the woods without leaving the city. In addition to eating organic maple taffy on snow, there's pea soup, pancakes (plain or with ham and cheese) and maple syrup pie sold on the premises. Tractor rides also offered as well as visits to the site's animal farm.
        When: usually open every day of the first week of March (spring break), and every weekend from late February through April.
        Cost: $3 for each maple taffy stick, $3 tractor rides ($4 ages 12 and up, $3 for ages 2 to 11, free under age 2), $5 or less for menu items, call (514) (514) 280-6743 for prices on other activities, including snowshoeing and cross-county skiing, weather-permitting.
        More INFO

         

        • Morgan Arboretum
          McGill University's forest reserve, home to 330 horticultural species, is unfortunately not within a reasonable distance from public transit. But if you can make it by car, do it. You'll get to enjoy the season in the middle of the arboretum's sugar maple grove, where its sugar shack is located and see how maple syrup used to be made. The arboretum makes its own maple syrup the traditional way: by gathering tree sap in buckets and boiling it over a wood fire. Maple syrup is sold on the premises in limited quantities. Guided tours of facilities last up to two hours. In the words of the Arboretum: ''celebrate the return of springtime in our sugar maple grove, one of the few remaining on the Island of Montreal. Enjoy a wagon ride to our sugar house and learn how syrup is made in the traditional way: on a wood fire, from sap collected in buckets. German sausages, hotdogs, drinks and, of course, taffy on snow will be sold at a nominal charge. This is, for the most part, an outdoor event.'' Interested parties are advised to reserve a spot by calling (514) 398-7811.
          When: March 6, 7, and 11 and then March 26 to April 2, 2017 from noon to 3:30 p.m.
          Cost: Admission varies. Early March dates cost $6 for members, $8 for non-members. Late March and early April dates are free for members with regular entrance fees applying to non-members: child $3.50, adult $7, senior & student $4.50, family rate $17. Note that only late March and early April dates involve food sold on location.
          More INFO

           

          • Cabane Panache et bois rond: Sugaring Off at Promenade Wellington
            Maple syrup street festival. In addition to a plethora of maple syrup infused street food, traditional Quebec folk music and dancing, lumberjack style games, local crafts for sale and other attractions are on the annual agenda.
            When: March 23 to March 26, 2017
            Cost: free admission, $2 to $5 per tasting
            More INFO

           

          • Brunch de la Cabane à Sucre
            Soup, maple ham, pancakes and other seasonal dishes are served at Parc la Fontaine's charming Espace La Fontaine every sugar shack season. Not an authentic sugar shack meal by a long shot, this year's five-course meal is still an interesting and budget-friendly city centre option for families.
            When: weekends from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., March 18 through April 9, 2017
            Cost: $20 regular admission, $15 for ages between 4 and 8
            More INFO