Next week the tapping begins. The New England states are gearing up as the sap starts to rise -- ready to run its course from tree to maple syrup jug. In Quebec province another process also takes place. The clocks turn back nearly a century for the 20,000 people expected to visit the "Sugar Shack of the Mountain" this year.
Fifty miles from Montreal in the Quebec town of Rigaud, the Faucher family at the Sucrerie de le Montagne taps its 1,100 maple trees in the traditional way, collecting the buckets of sap in horse-drawn sleighs and boiling it all day over wood fires or electric boilers until it turns into syrup. But the Fauchers also turn it into a festival, with hayrides, folk music, and a tour of their bakery where meat pies, sugar pies, beans, hams and breads are cooked in wood-burning ovens. A festival includes a feast.
This is cold country. It calls for hearty meals. So the Sucrerie de la Montagne serves a meal that could stick to your ribs until spring. It begins with a short lesson in 19th-century cooking and a Caribou Cocktail, a powerhouse of 80-proof alcohol with three kinds of wine including blueberry. At long wooden tables homemade pickles, chutneys and ketchup are set out in their canning jars. The serious eating starts with ham-flavored yellow pea soup. Then there is a parade of cured pork: crisply cooked Canadian salt back bacon called oreille de crisse, smoked and maple-sugar cured American-style bacon, country sausage, and ham cooked in maple sugar and red wine. Fresh pork also has a place, in tourtiere -- the traditional Canadian meat and potato pie -- and meatballs seasoned with sweet spices such as cinnamon and allspice. The maple theme is reiterated in the sweet and mellow baked beans.
Naturally there are homemade breads from the Fauchers' bakery, and tastes of every sort of maple product -- maple syrup, maple cream, maple butter, and maple sugar candy, which are all simply maple syrup boiled down at different temperatures for different lengths of time. For dessert, pancakes and intensely sweet maple sugar pies served with the kind of thick cream we have given up on at supermarkets.
All that eating is accompanied by folk music as well as dancing by a folk troupe that has grown to 16 this year; Pierre Faucher is likely to expand it by dragging diners from their chairs to join in. The meal ends with outdoor hijinks, including making maple toffee by pouring thick maple syrup into the snow.
Given such a hearty meal, visitors like to burn it off by bringing their cross-country skis or snowshoes to the farm, or they relax it off with sleigh rides.
This is the ninth year the Fauchers have run the Sucrerie de la Montagne, but only the fifth year for Pierre's enormous bushy beard which, along with his homespun shirt and suspenders, turn him into a proper spokesman for the 19th century. Though his parents worked in lumber camps -- his mother as a cook and his father as a lumberjack -- Pierre came to this farm from Western Montreal where he was engaged in more urban work -- public relations with the Eskimo Association and the pulp and paper business.
The first year on the farm, using recipes handed down from his mother, Pierre and his wife, Sandra, served 1,800 meals to the public. The second year they expanded to 2,500.
This year they added a 400-seat room that brought their total seating capacity to nearly 600. During their years at the Sucrerie de la Montagne the Fauchers have also added a son, Stefan, to the family; at 8 years old now he is playing the violin (not the fiddle -- yet, noted Pierre).
*The farm they bought has 35 acres; tapping their trees every 15 to 18 inches makes for a total of 2,500 tappings. The sap runs when freezing nights are contrasted with warmer -- 35- to 40-degree -- days. This year's tapping is expected to begin the first week of March and continue through April.
It takes 40 gallons of sap and a day of boiling to make a gallon of syrup. The boiling is followed by filtering the syrup through felt. Then it is graded -- the lighter and clearer the syrup, the higher the grade, though some prefer the more strongly flavored crude amber grade.
The Fauchers' is an old-fashioned operation through and through. Hundred-year-old wood from seven barns was used to build the new dining room, and everything is handmade from the tables to the cloth for the curtains, while the heating is done by antique wood stoves and huge stone fireplaces. There is a touch of modern times, however; the Sucrerie sells cassettes of its folk music. And at $18.50, the sugar shack meal has big-city prices.
The Sucrerie de la Montagne is open daily from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Reservations can be made by writing 300 St. Georges, Rigaud, P.Q.
If maple sugar is a big business, so is the tourism that goes along with it.
This year the Connecticut Department of Economic Development has put out a list of 20 sugar houses in its state that welcome visitors. For a copy call toll-free from New England through Virginia (800) 243-1685; or write 210 Washington St., Hartford, Conn. 06106. In Vermont the contact number is (802) 828-3239 or write Vermont Travel Division, 134 State St., Montpelier, Vt. 05602. If you are visiting other maple sugaring states call their departments of development or tourism. Keep in mind the season varies; in Connecticut it is expected to run though March. TABLETALK
Typically chefs expand their work to run more restaurants, but Jeremiah Tower has never been typical. He has resigned as chef of Santa Fe Bar and Grill in Berkeley, Calif., and says he will spend more time overseeing Stars, his San Francisco restaurant. Meanwhile, back at the Santa Fe Bar and Grill, the new chefs are Amaryll Schwertner, formerly of Square One, and Jim Moffatt, formerly of the Old Poodle Dog, both in San Francisco.
At the Liberty Cafe in Manhattan's South Streat Seaport, several weeks ago the menu was featuring "Wonder Bread Pizza." Huh? Well, it seemed that was what the New York Daily News restaurant critic had said the restaurant's pizza tasted like, so the Liberty Cafe decided to take truth-in-menus to new lengths.
Mothers have always known that chicken soup was the best cure for a cold, and now doctors agree. In fact, Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach is selling (for $1.19 per can) its own chicken soup, in cans labeled under its name. It's kosher, too. But one wonders at medically approved chicken soup that contains msg. In any case, write to the Public Relations Department of Mount Sinai Medical Center, 4300 Alton Rd., Miami Beach, Fla. 33140 for details, including shipping costs. SUCRERIE DE LA MONTAGNE BAKED BEANS (6 servings)
2 cups dried beans
1/2 cup molasses
1/4 cup maple sugar
2 teaspoons pepper
2 teaspoons dry mustard
10 slices fresh salt pork
* Wash beans and soak overnight in water to cover. Drain beans and place them in a cast-iron or clay pot. Add onion, molasses, maple sugar, pepper, dry mustard. Lay salt pork across and cover with hot water. Bake in a 375-degree oven for 3 hours, adding water if necessary. Lower to 350 degrees for another 3 hours, continuing to keep the beans moist by adding water to cover as it is absorbed.