Maple Syrup: The Sticky Truth

Maple syrup, Montreal's food specialty

From gracing breakfast tables across North America, to its prominent place on Canada’s national flag, maple has long held a beloved place in Canadian culture. In Quebec, maple syrup is a major export, with the Canadian province accounting for three-quarters of the world’s production. With the help of our culinary docent Marcella de Vincenzo, who leads our Montreal Food Tour, we explore the sticky truth of Maple Syrup in Montreal.

A Brief History of Maple Syrup

Maple syrup has a very long history, first appearing in recipes by indigenous peoples in North America long before Europeans arrived. Maple features heavily in the early myths of Eastern Woodland tribes including the Abenaki, Iroquois, and Mi’kmaq. The French explorer Jacques Cartier, who first claimed what is now Canada for France, noted the maple tree during his explorations in the mid 1500s. Later, European settlers, taking cues from the indigenous population, tapped maple trees for their sap. During the 17th and 18th centuries, maple water – and later, syrup – was consumed for health and vitality. It was favored as an alternative to costly cane sugar, which had to be imported from the West Indies.

How to Make Maple Syrup

Sap from maple trees has a high sugar content and comes primarily from sugar maples, red maples and black maples. Maple trees are tapped to collect their precious sap when they reach 30-4o years of age; the average tree produces 30-50 liters of syrup every season. The sap is boiled in a tightly controlled process to ensure the correct amount of sugar is produced. It is then filtered to remove harmless grit that forms during the process and in most cases, graded according to color and taste.

Maple Syrup Mania

During the mid-1800s, around the time of the American Civil War, syrup producers switched from heavy iron kettles to flat sheet metal pans for boiling the sap. This proved a much more efficient means of production, and other innovations soon followed. Simultaneously, cane sugar prices dropped and became the continent’s sweetener of choice. Syrup faced something of a crisis, and a subsequent marketing drive saw maple syrup’s popularity surge. While it has never become a mainstream sweetener to compete with sugar, maple syrup’s quality and scarcity ensures its reputation as a desirable and authentic product across the world.

Maple syrup on Montreal shelves.

Where Does Maple Syrup Come From?

Canada is responsible for 80 percent of global maple syrup production and Quebec is by far the world’s largest producer. In 2014, Quebec exported 36,407,717 kilos of the liquid gold, which translates to a staggering CAD$ 295 million according to the Canadian Department of Agriculture. Who’s buying all this syrup? The top importers of Canadian maple syrup are the United States at 63 percent, Japan at just under 10 percent, Germany at eight percent, and the UK at just under four percent.

With such huge sums of money involved, it should be no surprise that maple syrup comes with its own criminal scandal. In 2012, the story of the Great Canadian Maple Syrup Heist gripped the world, as revelations emerged of an ingenious scam that resulted in the theft of $18 million worth of syrup. You can read more about the scandal here, hear about it here, or check out a handy visual guide here.

Maple Syrup Grades

When purchasing maple syrup, note that different levels offer different flavors. Due to recent changes in the grading structure, there’s no longer such a thing as “Grade B” syrup. Instead, there are variations on Grade A, all defined by color and taste, including: Golden Colour and Delicate Taste; Amber Colour and Rich Taste; Dark Colour and Robust Taste; Very Dark Colour and Strong Taste.

Maple Syrup Montreal

Next time you find yourself in Montreal, be sure to visit Maple Delights. Located in Vieux Port, this shop has a wonderful variety of maple products: “They make everything with maple syrup – desserts, ice cream, and for example, they use granulated maple to sweeten coffee,” says Marcella. Additionally, don’t miss a visit to Marché des Saveurs, located in the Marché Jean Talon, which features a range of maple syrup alongside other Quebec-made products. (Note, we visit the Marché on our Montreal Food Tour, just one of many Montreal walking tours that we organize.)