Of maple syrup and life callings

Our Quebec guidebook said Ile d’Orleans, an island near Quebec City, was an idyllic expanse of 300-year-old farmland and old stone parish churches with a chocolate shop and a craft brewery, so my family and I decided to stop by. Since we were vacationing in a country whose very national flag bears a maple leaf, I was determined to stock up on maple syrup. We kept an eye out for roadside stands where we could pick some up.

We discovered a family-run érablière, a maple syrup producing place, where a delightful Quebecois woman named Nicole gave us and a Canadian couple the tour, alternating between English and French.

IMG_3386Trees must be at least 35 years old to give sap, Nicole told us, so you can’t plant them as saplings and wait for them to mature. You have to have an existing forest. Her husband’s family had been running this érablière for several generations–she showed us these old photos of the large families needed to do the labor-intensive work of making maple syrup. Her father-in-law, who is in his 90s, still puts on his snowshoes every year and helps the family gather the sweet maple water.

Maple syrup producing familiesThe window for gathering the sweet sap is often very short, ranging from six weeks to a few months in February and March. As a result, maple syrup production can’t be a family’s only source of income; it has to be paired with farming in the warmer weather. The temperatures have to be just right, a balance of freezing at night and above freezing during the day, for the pressure to force the sap to run.

It takes 50 gallons of sweet sap to make just one gallon of maple syrup. A system of plastic tubes feed the sap into huge pans where extensive boiling reduces it to a thick syrup.

IMG_3388The family gathers wood from their land, cleaning up the forest from last season’s dead trees to feed the fire. They have to add wood every 10 minutes to keep the sap boiling. Once it reaches the right temperature, it is funneled into containers, ready to be enjoyed.

IMG_3391Nicole and her family enjoy the syrup indeed. She joked about the “telephone pole maple syrup” sold in grocery stores, which sometimes has additives and doesn’t taste as good.

With all the labor involved, Nicole told us, you don’t do this just to make a profit. You do it because you love it.

“Some Canadians say that we have such a passion for this work that we don’t have blood running through our veins,” she said. “Instead, we have maple syrup.”

At the end of the tour, she passed around a bottle of maple syrup and a tub of maple butter with popsicle sticks. We dipped them in and had a taste of each. And then we were grateful that she and her family had such a passion, one that we could enjoy with our taste buds.

What runs through your veins and gives you life? What work do you do that seems ludicrous to everyone else? And what sweetness does it bring to others?

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