Maple syrup season in Canada: History and present day

By Fred Jéquier

With spring well underway and Lent now over, this can only mean one thing to many Canadians—maple syrup season is upon us! Many of us indulge in lashings of this amber nectar on our pancakes in the morning, or perhaps to jazz up vanilla ice cream, but the history and traditions of collecting and making this delicious treat stem way back to before Canada was even Canada.

Find out how maple syrup harvesting techniques and uses have changed, from its origin to present day.

First Nations traditions and uses

Maple water has been extracted from trees since long before the first settlers arrived. The First Nations—a predominant indigenous group who were of the first inhabitants in present-day Canada—would extract the water from trees with diagonal cuts made at the base of the tree, which was the original method of tapping. The sap would then be collected in pots, often made from birch bark.

Sap from maple trees is 97% water and only 3% sugar, so the next job was, and still is, to evaporate off as much water as possible. The First Nations people would heat rocks up in a fire, and once they were white hot, the rocks would be placed in the sap to evaporate the water. There is evidence to suggest that heating rocks in fires was a fairly common method for cooking, as well as heating up water or sap, for the First Nations people.

Photo from Walking by the Way .

They had a very holistic view on life, meaning they would use what nature provided them for their day-to-day needs. This was no different when it came to their uses for maple water. Since hot rocks can't maintain their heat indefinitely, it meant that maple water wouldn't evaporate down to what we all now know as maple syrup.

In fact, historian Pierre Rheaume, a researcher on the history of maple, suggests that what the First Nations people were actually producing was a more concentrated maple water, not a syrup. This maple concentrate had different uses to ours, as well. It was used as a tonic, and surprisingly, an eyewash, as their houses were often filled with smoke that dried out their eyes, and maple water was used as a remedy.

The first settlers

When the French first arrived in the eastern part of the country—in what would become Quebec, where 80% of the world's maple syrup is still produced, and Nova Scotia—the First Nations people were already well-versed in harvesting maple water.

In the mid-16th century, the French explorer Jacques Cartier was the first European to map the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and the shores of the Saint Lawrence River, which he named "The Country of Canadas." He saw the First Nations people extracting maple water and became intrigued. On trying it for the first time, Cartier and his men described the sap as similar to a fine wine (which may not be the best indictment of the vintage they had on their voyage to the New World).

Photo from The Canadiana Project.

The early economy of the first settlers in Canada was primarily based on the fur trade. The French would send envoys to boost trade by learning about the customs and languages of the First Nations people. Similarly, the First Nations people were equally inquisitive about the settlers' equipment, including iron cauldrons. This led to maple water being evaporated off until only a red sugar was left.

This was initially a problem for the French traders, as they had been hoping for white sugar. Since white was primarily associated with purity, the traders believed that white sugar would taste better. This red sugar, however, which became known as "country sugar," gained popularity in France and made its way onto the market—and into European kitchens.

Tapping the trees

By the early 19th century, new and more effective ways to harvest sap were being explored. This led to producers drilling a hole into the tree and adding an actual tap, which would allow sap to pour directly into buckets without doing irreparable damage to the trees—a risk of the old method. The buckets would then be carried down to cauldrons for the evaporating process. This new method, however, meant an increase in the quantity of sap, which meant a need for a more industrious operation to create sugar.

By the 1850s, sugar shacks were an established part of the harvesting process. Numerous cauldrons would be fired up, and they could hold up to 60 liters of sap. The process would take up to 24 hours, and every 60 liters of sap produced 1.5 liters of maple syrup.

During this period, it was still hard to effectively store and preserve the syrup so it was not available unless you worked in the sugar shacks. Producers were still very much in the business of making and selling maple sugar. Any leftover syrup would be kept in barrels and left in the sun to create vinegar, as it was hard to come by in Canada during this period.

The modern era

The 20th century obviously saw a rapid change in many areas of production and technology, and maple syrup wasn't left behind! Improvements were made in how it was harvested, produced, and stored. Just before the turn of the century, in 1889, the aptly-named evaporator was invented. This new method of evaporating off the water in the sap cut the process down to just four hours, allowing for even more syrup and sugar to be produced.

Sugar remained the preferred product until the 1920s, when barrels and containers became more effective at preserving the syrup. Even then, it was still only available by the gallon. By the 1950s, syrup became available in cans, which made it quickly become a commodity that could be sold in grocery stores, as well as facilitated exportation—making it even more lucrative for producers.

Photo from Seasons in the Valley .

With the increase in sales of maple syrup came the increase of demand. Producers now needed a more effective way of harvesting the sap. While the built-in taps were effective at extracting the sap, workers still had to carry buckets of it down to the shacks. In the 1970s, producers began to attach a network of tubes to the trees to siphon off the sap directly to the shacks and their evaporators. This method of tapping is still used today.

Health benefits of maple syrup

As we saw earlier, the First Nations people would use the early form of maple syrup as a healthy tonic. This trend didn't end with them. At the time, French physicians also believed that something in maple sap had health benefits, and it was used specifically for lung problems and to alleviate pain for people with chest problems.

Between 2005 and 2010, scientists found specific chemicals in maple sap that suggest that these early uses may have had merit. Numerous chemical compounds that have links to health and wellbeing have been found in maple syrup and sap, including polyphenols, vitamins, and minerals. Additionally, a 2010 discovery established the process-derived chemical named Quebecol, named after the home of maple syrup. Like agave and honey, maple syrup may well have a touch of Mother Nature's healing qualities, so make the most of it the next time you have a plate of pancakes and blueberries for breakfast!


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