Come spring and thaw, maple sap runs free. It’s at this time of year, mid-February to late April, that cabanes à sucre celebrate their harvest and open their doors for hardy communal breakfast feasts.
Among all the fare Quebec is been famous for, maple syrup is a regional masterpiece. Our province is the world’s top producer of the sticky stuff, the result of a long history that stretches back to when First Nations’ passed along harvesting practices to grisly European settlers who spent days and nights boiling sap down to viscous amber.
Any tourist reading this should take note, a spring trip to the sugar shack is indelible to any visit here. It’s when we’re in our most nationalistic element: We let the flannel fly, gorge on crêpes, blast folksy music, maybe get a little day drunk and hockey is still in season.
To my mind, a city dweller has two options. Either drive out to one of the many farms that surround us or hit up some of the events around town. Farms will set up stands selling maple taffy right off the snow and themed meals will come out of the restaurant woodwork. That’s what brought me to the non-profit Terra Perma’s pop-up in St. Henri, the harvest-themed Sirop Cabane Urbaine. For $30, Montrealers can enjoy an all-you-can-eat brunch with additional $5 tapas-sized choices like venison sausage and maple caviar (vegan options available). Their approach is a slow, locavore meal with ingredients and cooking techniques that can be sourced back to their compound in Harrington, located eighty minutes northeast of Montreal.
The question is, was it worth saving on gas money?
The ideas Terra Perma put into this brief stint are commendable, from its woodsy décor to their local sourcing of food. Those of you who can’t organize a car ride out of town may find this set-up adequate for a sugar shack craving. I personally found Terra Perma’s efforts to be a costly simulacrum, one that may have played up the sugar shack as more of a motif than the real deal. $30 turned out to quite steep, considering the quality of food and service style. The food I received was at times borderline cold and left me confused: The advertised “rustic style” eggs were simply scrambled and containing bits of eggshell; the home-style potatoes lacked even a hint of salt or its promised foraged thyme and garlic; the pea soup was of a mucous-like texture that had far too much black pepper; their pre-cooked bacon was cold pig brittle. In contrast, their pancakes, syrup and maple pie were good, but didn’t justify the lackluster visit.
Some items were simply not brought to my table, but after eating the aforementioned items, I wasn’t tempted to request the “fresh, rustic bread,” “Grandma’s marinades” or chance the $5 extras. I wished I had gone down the street for a straightforward $7 plate of eggs at Greenspot Diner. Don’t get me wrong, eating straight from a source will generally taste better to us and be healthier for us, but only if it’s done right. This was not.
This whole experience led me to wonder whether or not we ever can replicate the sugar shack experience in cities. At the risk of sounding like a purist, I don’t think we can. We can dress it up to look like the real deal, but in my view, you just can’t attach the pomp and glamour of urban life to an in-season cabane. Anyone can pour syrup on snow or upscale inherently rural food, but I’ve yet to experience anything quite like an out-of-town sugar shack; your boots get muddy, you reek of woodsmoke, you’re stuffed up to your gills, and the money you spent on getting there feels like a pittance.
If you don’t believe me, try Terra Perma’s Cabane Urbaine (3580 Notre-Dame W., open Saturday to Sunday 10 a.m.-6 p.m.) or another urban operation like Mayfair’s (451 Rachel E.) upcoming Cabana Sucre on April 2, which will offer similarly themed fare in two services, at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.
If you do, consider some of these locales, (all of which are within an hour’s drive of the city and are highly recommended):
…or scan these listings and see for yourself. ■