Growing up in Quebec, March and April become your favorite months. Winter is slowly coming to an end (no more snow – yey!!), hockey playoffs are soon to kick off (Habs all the way!!!), and a Cabane a Sucre. Cabane a Sucre… English translation = Sugar Shack. Literal Translation = maple syrup everything!
Most Cabane a Sucre’s are located in and around woods with maple trees. You tap the tree (put a spout in it), and have the sap that drips out drip into a bucket – which hangs on the tree as well. When the bucket fills up, you take the sap that came out, and make it into maple syrup. There’s a little more to the process than that, but that’s the basics. The Cabane a Sucre’s all make their own maple syrup from the trees on their property, which is used during Cabane a Sucre season. A maple tree won’t drip sap unless the weather is cooler overnight, and above freezing during the day. If a season is either too cold, or too hot, this will result in a slower maple syrup season.
The man featured above, that is my grandpa. My Nonno. He was my best friend. He was the one person I would “run away” to when I was mad at my mom and dad. He lived downstairs from me, so he was my go to. The one who I’d ask to buy me a candy or magazine, who would never say no. The one person who after winning a bowling tournament, I would go show him my medal to, because the days in the bowling alley were just sometimes too long for him. When I think Cabane a Sucre, I think Nonno.
Cabane a Sucre is where you can eat pretty much all the food you want, and everything is soaked in maple syrup. Okay, maybe that’s possibly a slight exaggeration, but not far off. Main Cabane a Sucre food is scrambled eggs, ham, baked beans, bacon, sausage, pea soup, and pancakes. But of course, all vary. Some have more food, and less emphasis on stuff to do, others have less food and more emphasis on fun – it all depends which one you go to. Others have a little mix of both. In Quebec, most Cabane a Sucres are all you can eat – literally meaning that. You stuff your face until you can’t move, THEN comes dessert. Desserts are always just as amazing as the meal itself. There are usually donuts with either cinnamon or icing sugar on it, and always a sugar pie. The most rich – and delicious – sugar pie you will ever eat! Another type of dessert they have is called “oreille de crisse” – English : pork jowls. It is deep fried pork skin. Sounds gross, I know right?! I personally cannot stand the taste of them. Others though, crave these all winter long, just waiting for Cabane a Sucre season to come.
And then…. Once all that food is done, there is the best part of all. The REASON to go to a Cabane a Sucre. The reason you play hooky from work, or take your kids out of school for the day – “La Tire”. This is literally maple syrup on a stick. Maple syrup is boiled in a huge pot, and then poured on snow. Once it dries up a little bit, you use a popsicle stick to roll the maple syrup, and eat it like a lollipop. THIS is what a Cabane a Sucre is all about! This is the reason you pay 20$ for breakfast type food all day long – for maple syrup on a stick!
My Nonno was always “never hungry”. He would always have his meal, eat a few bites, and then not be able to eat anymore. When it came to a Cabane a Sucre, he was no different. He would have a couple bites of ham, small pancakes, very little dessert, but when it came to the maple syrup on a stick, no joke, he could eat eight without any trouble whatsoever. Even when he was sick, this is what he loved about eating at a Cabane a Sucre. My memories always go back to him going up for “one more” and my mom saying “Pop, I’m sure you’ve had enough”; and my brother and I watching in the background. It’s been eleven years since he has been gone, and this is what I remember – a memory I will not soon forget!
Because of those memories of Nonno, when thinking about a Cabane a Sucre, I think family. Just before moving to Germany, and knowing I wouldn’t have this opportunity for another four years, a lot of my family got together to go eat at one. Most Cabane a Sucre’s have a dance floor for people to enjoy the live music. I watched the kids running around with my family, and couldn’t help but know this was one opportunity I would probably miss the most living in Europe. Of course new traditions while overseas would come along, but a Cabane a Sucre with family just wouldn’t happen.
One day I was sitting in my kitchen, when all of a sudden I hear the ping of an e-mail on my phone. I go check, and sitting right in my e-mails, is a letter from the boys’ school, saying that this semester, they have been learning words to do with a Cabane a Sucre – cool right?! Well to tie the entire semester together, the French teachers decided to add an afternoon of fun, and have a Cabane a Sucre day at the school itself. Everything was going to be in French as well, just to make it more authentic. OMG!
Of course you need to explain to your kids why on a Saturday (a day of no school), they will be going to school. And it has to be prepared; so you don’t tell them the day of, you start slowly explaining this weeks before. So in the middle of my trying to explain a Cabane a Sucre, I decided to show them instead. I showed them all the pictures above. I showed them pictures of myself when I was younger at a Cabane a Sucre. You could see the change of “I don’t want to go to school on a Saturday!” turn to a “this is not so bad, this may possibly be fun”.
Two days before, and my oldest son and I are talking (early morning groggy conversation), and he says “”it’s two days until Easter Mom!’. and I kept insisting, “uh, dude, we won’t even be in Germany for Easter!” – until we get into an argument and the conversation ends. In the car on the way to school, he suddenly says “Oh, silly me, Mom, it’s not Easter in two days, it’s the Cabane a Sugar” (close enough!). Morning of, they wake up by themselves, get their cute butts downstairs by themselves (I just love the fact they are old enough to figure out Netflix!) and get cereal by themselves! Eventually I come sleepily downstairs too when I hear the TV going. Well I can tell you, you wake up quickly when you see a child running towards you at full speed yelling “today is the Cabane a Sucre!! I get to go to school and see my friends again!” (We finally convinced him even though “sucre” and “sugar” are the same word, the name for today was Cabane a Sucre).
We pull up to the school, head inside, and first thing you see are children dressed in red and white checkered shirts (cabane a sucre colours – or Canadian to be technical) with red handkerchiefs around their necks; you can’t get more Quebec Cabane a Sucre than that! They tell us – in French of course – where to go, and wait in line for our programs, and to get our tickets.
The tickets were quite cool. Every winter, Quebec City (the capital of the province of Quebec) has a Winter Carnival – one of the biggest events in Quebec all year. Their mascot is a snowman, a well known, very farmiliar Bonhomme Carnaval. Well the tickets for the Cabane a Sucre, were from the Quebec Carnival of 2003. I have absolutely no idea how a small school in Europe were able to get these for upwards of 200 people, but it was very cool to have these – and a perfect reminder of home!
After a bit of socializing, there was a small skit where some of the children explained what exactly a Cabane a Sucre is. There are some kids in French class from the U.K. and other countries, so they were not familiar with a Cabane a Sucre, like Canadians are. A small explanation was nice to let them see some of where our tradition comes from. The French teacher went around the room asking all the kids if they remembered what some of the words they’d learnt were. It was a nice moment seeing some kids wanting to talk, and others (namely my kids..) try to hide to not say a word.
After this, lunch began! Everyone sat at a numbered table, and you go get food when your number gets called. Each table had a different name. Ours was Les Buveurs de Sirop – English : Maple Syrup Drinkers. Appropriate I’d say…
Lunch was incredible! The people who worked on this meal did such amazing work. They must have been making food for forever! First thing was tortiere (meat pie), potatoes, bacon, sausage, eggs, ham, baked beans, pancakes with real maple syrup, buns, and pea soup. One of my kids went back for a second helping of soup, another for extra bacon, and the other for pancakes. All three close in age, all three totally different personalities. I went back for seconds of everything – screw the diet today; who knows when I would have this opportunity again without being in Quebec.
We all then went outside, kids ran around playing games and burning off the food they just ate – in hopes for the best food on this planet – the maple syrup on a stick! I am almost not even exaggerating – this is the best part of Cabane a Sucre season. Everyone was given one “free”, but by the end, you could have as many as you wanted. I have no idea how they did it, but the school even crushed ice to make it like real snow. Most people had their one free, but towards the end, after everyone had their “one”, you could see most Quebecers standing around, just waiting. In the end, I lost count of how many were had – but no one else was eating them, so I was making sure they wouldn’t go to waste 😉
I am still taken back with how well this event was organized. I am amazed at how much a small event like this could bring up so many amazing memories. I am 100% glad to have had this day spent with friends, and my family. Seeing the look on my boys’ faces is something I will no forget. Their smiles, the happiness radiating off of them, was something amazing to see!