Sugar shacks: what they are, what to eat and who thought pouring tree sap on everything was a good idea in the first place?

April 2, 2024

With such long and harsh winters, it’s no wonder that people of Québec welcome the arrival of spring with unbridled joy. But come late-March, there's another reason to celebrate: it’s officially sugaring off season.

During this short period, city dwellers and tourists alike head out to the countryside to visit a sugar shack and indulge in a hearty, sweet and oh-so-delicious meal where everything on the menu is made of, drizzled with or drowned in… Maple syrup. Don’t understand the (taste) appeal? Here’s why this tradition has stood the test of time, and why you should add it to your guests’ cruise itinerary.

In this article, you will learn:

  • What sugaring off season is all about
  • What to eat at a sugar shack
  • What there is to do when visiting a sugar shack
  • Where maple syrup comes from

Sugaring off season: a limited-time offer!

Contrary to popular belief, maple syrup isn’t produced all year-round. There is only a short window of time at the beginning of spring during which the conditions are right, with temperatures above 0°C during the day, and below 0°C at night. This five-to-six-week timeframe may be short, but it is long awaited, as it’s when sugar shacks open their doors to hungry guests.

A visit to the sugar shack, or cabane à sucre, is the event of the year. Booking early is needed to ensure a spot at the chequered tablecloth-covered table. These rustic cabins are located smack in the middle of a maple forest and furnished with long, community-style wooden tables and benches. They offer an all-you-can-eat buffet filled with traditional québécois cuisine, and these comforting dishes all have one thing in common: they contain maple syrup in one shape or another.

To whet your appetite, here are a few details on what to expect during a visit to the sugar shack. Our top tip? Leave the calorie counting for another day!

Everything tastes better with a little maple syrup

First, it’s worth mentioning that the process of boiling maple sap doesn’t just produce maple syrup. With a little patience, and some extra boiling time, producers are able to whip up maple taffy, maple butter and eventually, when all of the water has evaporated, maple sugar. All of which is available to sample, eat and purchase during a trip to the cabane à sucre.

But surely there is ‘real food’ on offer, right? Of course! A sugar shack meal often consists of hearty pea soup, tourtière (Québec’s version of the meat pie), baked beans, omelettes, ham and sausages, all cooked with (or in) maple syrup. A few items, while not exactly exclusive to the sugaring off season, are harder to find throughout the rest of the year, including oreilles de Christ (deep-fried pork rinds) and grand-pères dans le sirop (dough balls cooked in maple syrup), which makes the outing even more special. And the icing on the cake? Tables are adorned with jugs of maple syrup so guests can drizzle some more over… Well, just about everything.

Still fancy a little something sweet? Deserts consist of a tooth-achingly sweet selection of maple syrup pie, doughnuts, pancakes and maple taffy.

The activities on offer… Besides eating!

While a visit to the sugar shack is all about the food, there are other things to do as well. Musicians will often play folk songs, and tours of the installations (including a peek at the wood-burning evaporator in action) are available for those interested in learning all about the fabrication process. Horse-pulled sleigh rides are another option, depending on the conditions. But the main event? Maple taffy on snow.

Nothing beats the anticipation felt by guests as they wait outside after the main meal to try and spot the tell-tale arrival of someone carrying a steaming pot of sugary goodness. The boiling taffy is poured over snow and left to harden, after which everyone can jump in and start rolling each line around a popsicle stick for a delicious maple syrup lolly.

However, rolling a good lolly isn’t as simple as it seems. There is a tipping point before which the taffy is too hot to hold its shape, which only results in sticky disaster, and after which it becomes too hard to roll.  Clearly, it is an art which requires lots of practice!

Who thought tree sap could be so tasty?

As is the case for many great Canadian inventions, maple syrup was created by indigenous people, who used sap to make maple sugar. This food was a helpful calorie booster during the long winter months. Many settlers then adopted this practice and started trudging snow on their trusted snowshoes to collect maple sap in metal buckets in the spring. Eventually, the tradition led to family meals held to celebrate the arrival of spring, and ‘sugar parties’ became so large that hosts had to move them to separate log cabins. And the sugar shack was born!

Today, maple syrup is serious business. Canada actually  produces about “78% of the world’s 100% pure maple syrup, 92% of which come from Québec.” The country even has a strategic reserve where most maple syrup is stored in order to protect sugarmakers (yes, it’s a real term!) from drastic fluctuations in market price.

But more than a simple export, maple syrup and sugar shacks represent the utter joy québécois feel at the thought of leaving another tough winter behind and entering the sunny season, as well as the warmth of a good ol’ family meal shared with loved ones and new friends alike.

Planning a spring cruise? Add this unique activity to your list when creating your itinerary. Your guests will be overjoyed and excited… And that’s not just the sugar talking!

Find out more about the Cruise the Saint Lawrence sustainable development guidelines on our sustainability page.