The Current

Quebec's maple syrup producers find sweet relief from pandemic shutdown, box up sugar-shack experience to go

The pandemic shuttered Quebec's sugar shacks, causing devastating financial losses. But now owners have banded together to make a comeback with a new campaign that boxes up the sugaring off experience so customers can enjoy it at home.

70 sugar shacks are taking part in a new e-commerce platform and meal box campaign

The pandemic shuttered Quebec's sugar shacks, causing devastating financial losses. But now owners have banded together to make a comeback with a new campaign that boxes up the sugaring off experience so customers can enjoy the food and music at home. (Ma Cabane à la Maison)

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Stéphanie Laurin's family has been in the maple syrup business for four generations. She co-owns Chalet des Erables in Ste-Anne-des-Plaines, Que., where prior to COVID-19 restrictions, her business received up to 8,000 visitors a day.

Last year, the pandemic forced Quebec's roughly 200 sugar shacks to shut their doors to visitors. Chalet des Erables lost 90 per cent of its annual income during the 2020 season, and over the course of the crisis, some others have gone out of business.

But now Laurin and other Quebec sugar shack owners have banded together to make a comeback.

Laurin's brainchild, Ma Cabane à la Maison, or "Home Sweet Home," is a campaign that's helping sugar shacks maintain some revenue during the pandemic.

The initiative is a meal-to-go campaign, and brings together 70 sugar shacks across the province in one e-commerce website. People can order gourmet boxes that help them experience the sugaring season safely from home. 

She says in the past, visitors drove more than an hour to come eat the traditional dishes, and enjoy the sugar shack experience. Family-owned sugar shacks like Laurin's are a staple to Quebec's economy. 

Stéphanie Laurin, co-owner of Chalet des Erables, a maple syrup business in Ste-Anne-des-Plaines, Que., said the pandemic forced her company to go bankrupt in 2020. She started a new new e-commerce platform called Ma Cabane à la Maison so sugar shack owners can sell gourmet meal kits. (Submitted by Stephanie Laurin)

While menus vary between the sugar shacks, they all boast ready-to-cook and reheatable dishes like crepes, pea soup, and tourtière, as well as maple syrup and Popsicle sticks. The latter allows people to enjoy maple taffy — a long held Canadian tradition — in their own backyards. 

Options include vegetarian, vegan, pork-free and gluten-free items. Boxes can be picked up at the individual sugar shacks or participating Metro locations, and cost $25 to $30. 

Laurin says the website had close to 2 million visitors since it launched. "We're going to keep the tradition alive with that," Laurin told The Current's Matt Galloway.

A rich history

Laurin's great-grandparents entered the industry in 1948, and her grandfather founded Chalet des Erables alongside them. Today she runs the business with her parents, her brother and her kids. The pandemic has meant not only the loss of income, but of tradition, too. 

That tradition is a long one.

Before the arrival of European colonists, First Nations peoples were the first to uncover the sweet, sugary substance. They extracted sap from sugar maples by molding v-shapes into the bark. As the Canadian Encyclopedia describes, they'd then boil it down in clay kettles or separate the sap from the water by freezing it. 

French settlers later adopted the tradition, and began maple syrup production in the 1700s. Today, Canada makes about 75 per cent of the world's maple syrup, 92 per cent of it hailing from Quebec. 

Laurin plans on preserving this rich aspect of the province's history and Canada's identity, one box at time.

"It means the tradition. It means family working outside, making the maple syrup together. It means everything for our family." 

Bringing the music home, too

Since music is as much part of the experience as the food, each box also comes with an access link to watch an "old time jamboree". 

The show includes Quebec artists Daniel Boucher, 2Frères, Yves Lambert, and Guylaine Tanguay.

"It's a very nice experience that you can live with your kids at home, with your friends on Zoom. It's a way to support the sugar shack if you want to go back again in the future,"  said Laurin.

"In Italy they have vineyards, in Canada we have sugar shacks. It's part of our history. It's part of our country. Let's not forget it's a sugar maple leaf that is on our flag"


Written by Keena Alwahaidi. Produced by Marika Wheeler.

Hear full episodes of The Current on CBC Listen, our free audio streaming service. 

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story said that Chalet des Erables had been forced to go bankrupt. In fact, the business avoided bankruptcy despite losing 90 per cent of its revenue in 2020.
    Apr 09, 2021 11:02 AM ET
  • A previous version of this story included an inaccurate figure for the number of sugar shacks in Quebec. That figure has been removed.
    Apr 16, 2021 5:15 PM ET

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