We’re all familiar with wine tastings, and much to the delight of caffeine addicts, a growing number of independent Canadian roasteries, including Toronto's Merchants of Green Coffee and Ottawa's Ministry of Coffee offer cupping and tasting workshops where acolytes learn to chart a coffee’s acidity, body and complexity, and how to differentiate among the three main growing regions. Yet, the Canadian analogue to “as American as apple pie” should only be so lucky. Maple syrup remains, in most people’s minds, a generic, commodity product. It’s perceived merely as the higher-priced alternative to that ubiquitous high-fructose goo, Aunt Jemima’s.
For years, I’ve had a nagging dissatisfaction that the condiment so bound up in our national identity couldn’t, like Rodney Dangerfield, get no respect. So, in my travels as a writer and photographer, I ask, when I encounter a maple-syrup producer, if the concept of terroir — the expression of local climate and soil — exists for maple syrup in the way it does for wine and coffee.
I first inquire while visiting the sugar shack at McLean Berry Farm near Peterborough, Ont. “Yes,” says director Erin McLean — but only if the sap is boiled down the old-fashioned way, over a wood stove, rather than the gas stove method preferred by large-scale commercial producers. (Maple sap is so watery that it takes about 40 litres of sap to yield one litre of syrup.)
Over lobster boil at Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Highlands National Park, fiddler and Parks Canada interpreter Doug Aucoin lets slip that he once made maple syrup in the nearby Chéticamp River valley.
“Because it wasn’t a commercial production,” he recalls, “we didn’t have any of the filters for the reverse osmosis process they normally use to speed up the boiling process. But in doing this, you lose the particular flavour notes. We filtered it through a cheesecloth and I was very surprised at the flavours we were getting. It was delicious, fantastic. Some of the woodiness of the maple syrup was left; you knew that this came out of a tree.” To compare it to the supermarket variety, he says, would be like comparing unaged whiskey to a 21-year-old Highland Park.
“Each tree, each region should give you a different taste,” he concurs. “I’ve tried maple syrup made here compared to some made by my friend 45 minutes down the road in Margaree and there were definitely differences.”
But how, exactly, does one describe those differences? And are they consistent? I ask Ray Bonenberg, owner-operator, with his wife, of Mapleside Sugar Bush in the Ottawa Valley near Pembroke, Ont.
“Maple syrup from southwestern Ontario has a more earthy flavour,” he explains when I reach him on his cell as he's putting up pipeline for the coming syrup season. “I can tell if a syrup was made on the granite of the Canadian Shield country up north around Huntsville. It has more of a, not vanilla, but a lighter flavour that’s not as heavy in the maple bouquet.”
Still, these differences are anecdotal. Asked if there’s an agreed-upon system for sorting out terroir, he replies (speaking now as President of the International Maple Syrup Institute and immediate Past-President of the Ontario Maple Syrup Producers Association), “Our more corporate high-level answer is: No.”
Flavour differences are attributable less to the site and more to the weather, he insists. “If you have a warm sugaring season, during March and April, the syrup has a different flavour than if it’s a cold season. Given that maple syrup is made from Maine to Minnesota, and West Virginia to Northern Ontario, it’s a very big geography, and trying to pick something that is unique in regard to a flavour [for each region], well, we haven’t got our minds around it yet.”