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Canada’s sweet history of maple sugar

The sweet sap of the sugar maple (Acer saccharum) was known and valued by Canada’s First Nations hundreds of years ago, well before the Europeans settled in New France. Popular legend holds that it all began when a native chief hurled his tomahawk at a tree, which turned out to be a maple. The liquid that dripped from the gash was collected by the chief’s wife to cook venison, and the sweet results were a hit. Another old legend traced the discovery of maple sap to seeing a squirrel full of energy after drinking it from a tree. Though techniques slightly varied, the First Nations have been collecting maple sap for centuries as a kind of elixir for the body to eliminate toxins and fats accumulated during the winter months. Also, they have been using maple sap as an important ingredient in food preservation by making maple-cured meats at times when food is scarce.


Indigenous peoples living in northeastern North America were the first groups known to have produced maple syrup and maple sugar PHOTO Wikipedia


The first recorded observations about maple sap came from early French explorers in the mid-16th century. In 1557, André Thevet, a widely travelled French priest who wrote about colonial expeditions, told the story of how Jacques Catier and his fellow explorers accidentally cut down what they thought was a large walnut tree and were fascinated by the sweet-tasting sap that gushed out from it, which they compared to a good wine. In 1606, Marc Lescarbot, another French explorer who wrote about his adventures in Acadia, provided an eyewitness account of the collection and what he called the distillation of maple sap by the First Nations. Written records on maple sap multiplied towards the end of the 17th century with the arrival of French missionaries. Among them were the Récollet Gabriel Sagard, who regarded maple sap as a crude remedy for indigestion, and the Jesuit Paul Le Jeune, who considered maple water to be a reinvigorating beverage.

Growing numbers of European settlers in New France during the late 17th century pushed forward an evolution in the use of maple sap. Early testimonies mentioned the native practice of boiling down small quantities of sap to make resin or of dropping red-hot stones in the sap to increase the sugary taste. The introduction of iron cauldrons for cooking brought by the Europeans allowed the First Nations to carry on their experiments by heating the sap to a boiling point, which was not possible with the kinds of vessels available to them before. By the time governor Pierre Boucher wrote his pioneering natural history of New France in 1664, maple sugar production had begun in the colonies after the discovery that the sap, when boiled, gave syrup and sugar.

In the second half of the 17th and into the 18th century, maple sugar had become a type of culinary curiosity frequently exported to France. Legend tells that Louis XIV was a huge fan of maple sugar and went so far as to lock the sugar bowl, being the only one with the key. He also loved maple sugar candies, which were sent to him by Agathe de Saint-Père, a successful Montreal businesswoman. With the development of slavery and the rising demands for sweenteners later in the 18th century, the maple sugar trade gradually expanded to the Caribbean and the rest of the world. At the same time, maple products went through a transformation from being a commodity reserved for the nobility and the well-off to a popular addition to the dining table widely consumed by ordinary people.


Traditional maple syrup production in Quebec Canada PHOTO Stock Image


The 19th century witnessed technical development of maple sugar products made available by modern science and research. Instead of using an axe, incisions were made with a drill to cut the trees; for collecting the sap, wooden buckets were replaced by metal receptacles with lids; the iron pot laboriously put on and taken off the fire changed to the evaporator. With the equipment enhancements, the construction of shacks in place of branch-covered shelters was necessary in order to avoid heat losses during the boiling of maple sap. This is how the first sugar shacks emerged. As time went on, les cabanes à sucre came to dot the Quebec landscape, and visiting the shacks gradually became a popular Canadian cultural practice, especially in Quebec where the tradition was born.

From the aboriginal discovery of the maple sap water, to the technical inventions made possible by settlers of European origin, maple sugaring went through a long history to become an integral part of Canadian culture rooted in two distinct and noble traditions. Today, Quebec maple syrup is sold to nearly 60 countries, accounting for 72 per cent of the world’s production. The traditions have lived on in its journey across the globe. (Adapted by Yutong Miao from the website of the Quebec Maple Syrup Producers)

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