I had both at Picard’s restaurant but hankered for the traditional presentation of the taffy, laid out on fresh snow. So I took the Metro up to the Montreal Botanical Garden and trudged past its insectarium and through the sprawling arboretum, where snow was quickly melting, to the Tree House building. There, another Mirabel-based maple house, Les Sucreries Jette, had set up an outpost for the season. I stepped up to one of the big metal trays, and a gray-haired man wearing stylish eyeglasses ladled a swipe of thickened maple syrup onto the ice in front of me. I handed him a $2 coin in exchange for a little wooden stick. I waited a few minutes for the syrup to start to harden, then poked the stick into one end and twirled until I had a pure blast of sticky sweetness, the sun shining through it like amber.
“There’s your lollipop!” a man told his son, who was twirling in unison with me. “Get it!”
(Gene Thorp/The Washington Post)
Perhaps it was the sugar rush, but as the boy begged for another round, I found myself itching to know a little more about the history of maple sugaring in Quebec, so I headed back downtown to Canadian Maple Delights in the Old Port neighborhood. Downstairs from all the pastries and other maple products (maple caviar, anyone?), the free museum has a decor with a tree motif. Amid historic examples of taps, pails and other equipment, the display tells how native Americans were first to discover “sinzibuckwud,” the Algonquin word meaning “drawn from wood,” using their tomahawks to cut into the tree, reeds to run the sap into birch buckets and hot stones to concentrate it. A far cry from modern production, in which tubing takes sap from thousands of trees right to storage tanks, and reverse osmosis systems shorten the time it takes for the sap to evaporate into syrup.
Interesting, all. But I was most captivated by a short mention that family “sugaring off” events, the end-of-the-season neighborhood parties that gave birth to the commercial sugar shack experience, would typically top off the large meal — including maple taffy on snow — with “outdoor activities or a dance to burn off the calories.” I was still feeling bloated from the previous day’s maple-soaked brunch in Mirabel, and it struck me that if Picard wanted to be particularly true to Quebecois tradition, perhaps he should require everybody at his cabane a sucre to get up after that last course of maple-glazed sticky buns, maple taffy on maple praline ice cream, and maple-cream-filled eclairs topped with maple cotton candy, and do a little dance. Or a big one.
Better yet, maybe he should take down all those tubes behind the shack, streaming from tree to tree like so many telephone lines, and instead make his guests haul all those buckets of sap back to the evaporator by hand. Something tells me that those Algonquin Indians and early settlers, a little more active than your average American tourist in Montreal, felt just fine after even the largest maple-soaked meal.
I, however, needed to find a gym.
Montreal: How to get there, where to stay, what to do and more
Yonan is on a year’s leave from The Washington Post to work on book projects in southern Maine. He can be reached through his Web site, www.joeyonan.com.