The island of Montreal is encircled by sugar shacks. Every spring, workers tap into the melting, sugary ichor of the maple tree, and together produce 77 per cent of the world’s maple syrup. This year, a mild winter and an early burst of heat may have put a damper on the bottom line profits that harvesters can expect, both from their trees and the people that leave the island to see them. Sugaring off just isn’t the same when the snow you’re using to cool hot syrup for the stick has been dragged out of a freezer.
A visit to a sugar shack has become a rite of passage, a must-do for anyone in the city during the maple season. The sugar shacks have responded accordingly, vying for attention by specializing in certain types of maple experiences. You can have a massage with your syrup at the Handfield sugar shack, enjoy orchard apples on the side at the Denis Charbonneau maplery, or play sports to work up an appetite at the Sucre des Sportifs. Maple has even been elevated to a gourmand ingredient, slathered throughout the offerings at L’Hermine MaÃ®tre Sucrier and Au Pied de Cochon.
While fun, the flash of these places does little to put our Canadian maple pride in its crucial historical context, reducing culture to consumption. There are alternatives that provide an authentic experience, one which nourishes as much as it pleases your sweet tooth, leaving you with something more to chew on.
The First Nations Culture House (La Maison des Cultures AmÃ©rindiennes) is located at the foot of the St. Hilaire mountain, which is a UNESCO biosphere reserve in addition to being a time-honoured symbol and source of legend for both the Algonquin people and colonists. The setting is idyllic, and plays host to Canada’s only “urban bush” maplery, which surrounds the cultural house. Inside, a permanent exhibit showcases the painted and sculpted art of the centre’s founder, AndrÃ© Michel, who enjoyed a life-long friendship with the Innu of the Seven Islands region of Quebec.
The centre connects visitors with the origin story of maple syrup, and the related traditions and technologies of First Nations peoples. They discovered how to turn the sugar-water inside of maple trees into a thick, golden syrup that provided them with energy as well as a delicious accompaniment to many meals.
The centre’s cooks serve up a delicious opportunity for you to enjoy the fresh maple syrup batch. Savour it alongside bannock, drizzled on a potage of the ‘three sisters’ of the First Nations (squash, maize, and beans), sparingly in the vinaigrette of an Iroquois salad with wild herbs, and both in and on an Atikamekw-style sugar pie (without crust). An herbed chicken on wild rice, or a vegetable ragout for vegetarians, is the keystone of the meal and shouldn’t go without a little touch of maple on its own. Experiment, but don’t over-indulge: there’s more maple waiting outside, where you can sugar off with your friends, armed with sticks and a snowy trench that turns liquid syrup into a chewy treat.
It’s worth it to get a group together and reserve the meal and the showroom presentation, in which a staff member welcomes you to the house with a burning sage cleansing ceremony, a song of welcome accompanied by drum, and information on the centre’s history and the surrounding area. Note that for the full package experience, reservations are obligatory, but the gallery and gift shop can be visited by dropping in.
The First Nations Culture House is located just off of the island, at 510 MontÃ©e des Trente, Mont Saint Hilaire.