Maple marauder, sapsucker, syrup skeezer, pancake soaker, I’ve been called it all. A walking talking syrup slurping Canadian cliche — chubby, bearded and clad in plaid — I’m the poster boy, the maple equivalent to Aunt Jamima who has yet to grace the labels of our famous tin cans that line farmers market shelves from here to Gaspe Bay.
You won’t find me at any famous pancake parties or town festivals but don’t mistake that for a lack of passion for Canada’s liquid gold. I adore it.
In fact, I’m proud of maple syrup, which is strange as I have nothing to do with its production. For some reason when I see maple syrup outside of Canada, I feel a sense of pride not unlike watching my children grow.
I love maple syrup and I identify through its sticky sweet and warm embrace of the palate.
Harvesting has changed over the years but remains still a relatively rustic production — kicked off by the familiar sight of hardworking sugar bush stewards. They set our hundreds of km of tubbing, creating intricate highways of sap flowing from tree to tree.
As soon as temperatures start to climb, so does the sap, up from the roots and trunks it climbs the tree and makes its way free through holes cut near the base. The process hasn’t changed since Indigenous people discovered this natural magic and crafted the process — many moons before Europeans arrived.
Many legends exist regarding its discovery, one I like in particular involves a feast where venison was boiled in the sap in the absence of water, reducing and intensifying as it cooked. That chef’s discovery was a culinary game-changer. I mean even today we lean towards sweet sauces when cooking venison, food and recipes that intuitive choice amazes me.
After that, harvest became annual, holes cut, birch buckets filled and the nightly cold temps would be used to freeze the sap separating the frozen water from the slushy syrup. Night after night repeated until the sweetest sap remained. Ingenious!
Today, massive evaporators are used and it generally takes 40 liters of sap to make one litre of syrup. On average, a tree will produce 60 liters of sap annually. So that’s how I see the forest — not for the trees but for the 1.5 litres of syrup each one gifts us.
Maple syrup isn’t just for sweets either — the beauty of maple over other sweeteners is its depth of flavours. As sweet as it is, it’s loaded with deep, dark, savoury flavours only heightened by reduction and the addition of other savoury elements.
In our early days at Uptown21, we used maple syrup fiercely across the whole menu — blended with soy and malt vinegar to finish tuna tempura, reduced and enhanced with black truffles to glaze foie gras croquettes. From vinaigrettes and savoury braises to traditional Quebecois sugar pie — we worshiped it as our god and drank directly from the bottle. Drunk with Canadian culinary pride.
Go hug a tree. Go celebrate an important yet cliche part of our culinary history.
Check out my recipe for what we called “black umami sauce.” We literally used it on everything from fried chicken to sweet and savoury donuts and cheese.
Black Umami Sauce
500 ml Maple Syrup
250 ml Japanese Soy Sauce
500 ml Malt Vinegar
2 t Salt
30 g Black Truffles
This is an extremely easy recipe, the hardest part is sourcing the truffles. Truffle oil can be used, but if you can find it fresh this is a great way to lock in that flavour and preserve it for use year round.
The first step is to reduce the maple syrup with a couple pinches of salt. This will intensify the maple’s savoury flavours and really help that element pop in the final sauce.
So, in a large pot reduce maple syrup to ¼ its original volume. Once this is achieved, add the soy and malt vinegar and continue to cook reducing by ½.
At this stage, remove it from the heat and add the grated/shaved black truffle and allow this to sit at room temperature steeping overnight.
The following day divide the sauce into smaller jars for save storage in the refrigerator and use as needed to add to almost any meal.
Some of my favourite uses are with fried chicken, pork meatballs, french fry dip and over pate.
Nick Benninger is a local chef and restaurant owner.