Maple syrup is an icon among foods across Canada and around the world, a welcome addition to any breakfast table as a distinguished guest.

It is also a versatile ingredient in any kitchen.

Waterloo region knows the power of maple syrup well. Each spring, the region fetes the viscous fluid during the Elmira Maple Syrup Festival, an event organizers describe as the world's largest celebration of maple syrup.

With some 2,000 volunteers and the day of event drawing crowds estimated to reach 65,000 people, the festival, which began in 1965, is an icon on its own.

The maple syrup centre of the universe

Canada produces 85 per cent of the world's maple syrup. Northeastern North American has carved out its niche as the planet's production centre with Quebec, Vermont and Ontario as the largest producers.

New Brunswick and Nova Scotia are in the top dozen or so producers as well.

What is needed for great maple syrup is a series of warm days and cold nights: The ideal temperatures are 5 C during the day, dropping to -5 C at night. The sap is best collected before the tree's buds pop out, so tapping and boiling was done in Waterloo region very early this year due to milder weather.

maple syrup bottles CBC Ottawa

Fairbairn Maple producers in Almonte, Ont., near Ottawa, keep and mark a small sample from each day's syrup production. The bottles show the changing colour of the syrup. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

Maple syrup is graded golden (delicate), amber (rich), dark (robust) and very dark (strong), categories determined by weather conditions and not the boiling process. Making maple syrup requires a lot of energy: The reduction of 40 litres of sap will yield one litre of maple syrup.

It's that deep reduction process that makes maple syrup such a special treat.

Local chefs suggest ways to use maple syrup

"The dessert applications are endless with maple syrup, from custards and creams, tarts and éclairs, and of course ice cream," according to Amédé Lamarche, a culinary instructor at Conestoga College in Waterloo.

But the versatility of the elixir doesn't stop there, added Dan McCowan of Red House Uptown in Waterloo.  

"Canadians often take it for granted just how much of a treat it is to have fresh and local syrup every spring. You can drown your favourite pancake or French toast recipe in it, but it's very versatile in savoury applications as well," McCowan said.

Here are a few suggestions from local chefs for using this year's fresh batch of maple syrup in your cooking.

Shea Robinson, chef, Miijidaa Cafe and Bistro, Guelph:

"I like to use maple syrup in a lot of savoury applications such as adding a little to sauces. It can also be added to a poaching liquid for fish or when roasting root vegetables with butter and herbs. We have also been using it to make maple fudge lately and serving it with whipped yogurt and salted peanuts."     

hi-cgy-walnuts852

Toss walnuts with maple syrup and a bit of salt, and bake for a candied treat.

Brad Lomanto, chef, Cambridge Mill, Cambridge:

"We use quite a bit of maple syrup in sweet dishes, but it's also great for candied walnuts. Put maple syrup into a bowl with walnuts and coat them lightly, season them with salt, toss them and put them on a baking sheet in the oven at 350 degrees for about eight minutes. They come out crunchy and amazing."

Amédé Lamarche, culinary instructor, Conestoga College:

"As a kid with French-Canadian heritage, maple syrup was something to be cherished. We'd look forward to our grandmother's return from her annual trip to the sugar bush. She would dole out each family's annual allotment and we would taste and discuss the quality of the syrup as though we were at a Beaujolais tasting. Otherwise, I only use amber syrup for culinary applications, as the flavour is more pronounced, so you can achieve maple-y goodness without overwhelming sweetness. Put a few drops in a vinaigrette, a glaze or a marinade for meats or smoked fish."

Berry maple syrup

Maple syrup is a classic on pancakes, but you can also add it to soups, dressings and marinades.

  

Dan McCowan, chef, Red House Uptown, Waterloo: 

"We use maple syrup with a combination of kosher salt, pink peppercorns and fennel seeds to cure steelhead trout before smoking it for our smoked trout eggs Benedict and also in brines for meat such as pork shoulder before smoking, or in preparing some of our charcuterie."

Tara Jacobsen, pastry chef, Whistle Bear Golf Club, Cambridge:

"It's a versatile ingredient from soups and sauces to dressings, marinades and desserts. It also has minerals, vitamins and antioxidants, so it's delicious, has health benefits and it's made right around the corner."