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2 Cabanes à Sucre (long)

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Frustrated in my efforts to gain information about this phenomenon, I took the pail by the handle and just went today. Half the family opted out for a variety of reasons leaving just me and a single sugar-enthused, anticipatory puppy, a decidedly outlying party of 2 in the dining room where we landed amongst average dining parties of at least size 10 (meaning there were several parties of more than 12 people). This event seems to be a big family and/or friends gathering affair. In fact, this event seems to be at least as much about getting together with family and friends and sharing a set meal as about either the maple sugar or the food. It seems to be basically a giant meal template, devolved from the necessity of shared sugaring days and incumbent potluck to commercially mediated cultural memory of the shared event. As such it strikes me as a hybrid of the modern U.S. Thanksgiving meal and a barn-raising potluck of old. The ritual seems as or more important than any given part of it.

And silly me, thinking this was about sugaring, or eating. We went, but I think we only really experienced a skeletal version of the reality, fun though it may be. How authentic can a Thanksgiving dinner with a Rock Cornish Game Hen for two be??

Which is not to say we didn’t have fun or enjoy the meal. Sadly, the place where we opted, with CH-researched, better-than-average food, was also better-than-average efficient, with newfangled evaporating equipment that negated the need for all-day boiling, resulting in our being unable to actually witness real syrup-preparation. They were quite generous at La Sucrerie de Auberge des Gallant (http://www.gallant.qc.ca/sejour-monte... ) in letting us observe their preparations in the back room. But with the warm weather and rain, there was little going on to observe. They have an osmotic-process going there that cuts their boiling time by 1/3 so between that and the slow-running sap today, they weren’t going to start boiling until this evening. Evidently the run is starting to slow now, threatening to end before the usual start of the season in years’ past. Still, we got to see an old gentleman, perhaps the patriarch? canning dense, medium-grade syrup by hand, one by one. Quite a process in itself! I can see how that “medium” grade equates to the US grade “C”.

In the dining room was a delicious AYCE buffet including souffléd eggs, white beans, sausage, meat pie (creton inside?), potatoes, ham, something curly and crispy (pork skin?) and meatballs on the hot table. There was a salads section with lettuce mix, pickled beets, onions, tomatoes?, cabbage, cucumbers, some fruit, and macaroni salad and a maple vinaigrette dressing, it seemed. Also some creton, I think. In the desert section was maple cream pie (is that right? It seems like pure maple butter butter inside), two sponge cakes, one with a thick maple cream frosting, the other with a couple layers of maple cream filling and a pecan-maple carmelized topping, a maple-upside down-type cake, apple-filled dense rolled apple crepes and maple muffins and perhaps another desert that I forget? There was maple taffy outside as well.

I list all this because I have been having a terrible time trying to get some handle on what is served at these Cabane à sucres. I keep hearing “the usual”, but that’s inscrutable for someone who’s never been to one. And as far as I can tell, this is a French Canadian cultural thing, something that just hasn’t crossed the. So if this is “the usual”, and I’m guessing it is, I list it all in tedious detail for the benefit of future confused foreign CHs, not to bore everyone else. Oh – the meal started with dinner rolls and pea soup. Tea/Coffee/OJ (for kids only) comes with the meal. On weekends $22 for ad, $10 for kids + tx.

The beans were IMO the best; just delicious. I had two (small) bowlsful. The meat used to flavor it was very tender and flavorful – a real treat. While it was my favorite, the pup didn’t like it. Go figure. Other kids in the dining room seemed in agreement that the favored item on the buffet was the little curly crunchy things, whatever they were. I’m guessing fried pig’s skin, but if this is so, I’m pretty sure I don’t want to know about it. I realize that a vegetarian at a Cabane à Sucre is rather like, well, a vegetarian at a US Thanksgiving feast – it can be done, but not without concomitant loss of some important existential element to it all. While not currently vegetarian, these are my leanings; I tried to eat and enjoy all meats as if in “Rome”, but manging crisped pig skin tests my resolve. I’m hoping this was somehow faux? And please, no lectures about the hypocrisy of the attitude: I know it is. Nuff said.

None of the main courses was too sweet while all of the deserts were! Yet I believe many if not all of the main offerings were concocted with syrup inside? Presumably the ham at least, which was about as good a ham as I’ve had. Not too salty at all, neither too sweet, very moist. Worth taking a break from meat-restrained status. Not so the sausages which were sort of lumpy and loose to my mind. The child respectfully disagreed, downing more of them than I care to acknowledge. We agreed the meat-of-unknown-provenance balls were icky. The meat pie was scarfed with gusto by the wee one; not my fav. The eggs were wonderful and a good foil to all the strong flavors around, though they too were flavorful, with a smoky, herby crust. They were very airy and fluffy, really lightening up one’s insides, and permitting –ahem – more eating to be done. I will definitely not be eating again before noon tomorrow, making this a cost-effective meal in the short run at least (long run would be an entirely different calculation). The potatoes were very soft and inoffensive, though there could have been more onions and perhaps something crispier in them for texture-variation. Minor quibble.

The salads were delicious. Perfectly cooked beets in a perfect marinade, not too sour, not too sweet. Great pickled onions, very mild and tasty. There was a red pickle – do people pickle tomatoes? It would help if I could read French better, not that I ever saw a menu in any language, come to think of it. Also pickled cabbage, aka cole slaw, in presumably a maple-sweetened vinarigrette. The dressing was likewise great – I would have been very happy with just the salad bar, soup and bread but if that was a buffet option, I’m unaware of it. They could market this as a vegetarian Cabane offering perhaps? Woulda pleased me! (though the soup is not vegetarian).

Truthfully, perhaps the most enjoyable part was the pitcher of syrup on the table. I noticed other tables with them and their pitchers were going, going, downward – what people were using the straight-up syrup for, I don’t know. The food seemed all sufficiently sweet. I tried putting some in my tea but that didn’t really dent the top line. Then I noticed the rolls. We poured syrup on them and frankly, were as happy as could be just with that simple incarnation. Maybe it was because this was early on in the dining and we were not yet groaning from overeating? But it was my happiest point in the meal. The deserts just didn’t quite excite me as much as I’d wish, but that’s probably only because I was so topped-out by the time we reached them. I thought the pecan-topped cake was the best; dd liked the pie best. At that point I switched to coffee, which was a big mistake. The tea came out of a filtered coffee carafe with 4 tea bags stuck to the inside, little paper tags and all. Since it was hard to nab refills on that and it was a little gross, I decided to try the more ubiquitous coffee: big mistake. It was easily the blackest, burntest coffee I’ve had. Maybe it was supposed to be in keeping with the smoked-flavor letimotiv? By that time though no amount of astringent was going to cut the heft of sugar. Worst were the crepes with a glutinous maple sauce on top. My fellow diners didn’t seem to have any trouble putting away tray after tray of them however. There was absolutely no way we were going to stuff any of that gross maple taffy down after all the other stuff. Again, this attitude never hampered our co-diners, who gathered around the outdoor snow tray in droves. Much laughter punctuated their obvious happiness inside and out. Good food reinforced the ubiquitous good company that so many seemed to have arrived with.

The dining room is a large pleasant space with a big actual-wood-burning fireplace and “rustic” tables. The coffee mugs were a little sticky, both of them, and one was chipped, but I decided not to complain. Our waitress seemed inexperienced and a little harried. Her fellow staff all seemed a little more in control of making us feel very comfortable so I didn’t want to trouble her. All was fine from my end with this détent until at the end of our sojourn when she informed me she was needing the table soon as she had a large party coming. The dining room was half empty at that point (it was large) and the two tables next to ours had not yet even been laid or fully cleared. I am always pretty sensitive to others waiting and their possible need for our space, so I had been trying to keep an eye out for this; her remark was dismaying. Moreover most tables around us had been, and still were, occupied by the same parties as when we had arrived so we weren’t excessively long at table by other diner’s standards. This was the biggest atmospheric hamper on the meal for me, but even that didn’t bother me much. It was better to work off the meal by a walk outside than by sitting anyway, so all’s well that ends well.

There are trails around the property that while a little sloppy with thaw, were still traversable. We had the walkways to ourselves; just us and a few mammoth deer by the look of their tracks. The view we made it to was down the huge power line right-of-ways, so that was hardly pristine and being below the high point, wasn’t peak, still the new-forest walk was nice. In search of a better view and perhaps a more satisfying visit to the evaporation process itself, we backtracked on our route down Chemin St.-Henri to an eponymously named Érabliére we saw there, www.erabliere-st-henri.qc.ca

This establishment seemed possibly more traditional or “rustic”, with most certainly a more old-fashioned ongoing sugaring operation. True, it was diesel fuel they were burning but at least they weren’t purifying by osmosis. There was a satisfying cloud of steam in the air and some wonderful fiddle music playing on the CD inside. Their menu looks similar to their neighbor’s, but a little cheaper. The food is brought to the tables on plates rather than fetched from a buffet so it may not be AYCE. But the portions looked larger (than I took at least) and also a little less, dunno “gourmet”-ish, whatever that means. I guess what that means is I saw sausages that were teeny and very bright red which I associate with nasty appetizer-hotdogs. This may be an entirely unfair association. The menu says their meats are fresh from their own farm (this I _can_ read in French). The menu also lists music as part of some festivities, but there is some indication this isn’t happening as originally planned, (perhaps because of the premature season?) so it is worth checking with them before making plans around this entertainment. If I were to return en famille, I would try this place next time. Especially if there is really live fiddling to be enjoyed. The staff were all exceptionally nice and caring (e.g., concerned about my aversion to glucose in the maple coronets which they evidently add when exporting to metro for preservation purposes, but omit for their home-based patrons; sufficiently concerned about permitting a child to watch the sugaring operations that they halted a filming in progress for her spectating purposes, etc). The working farm (as opposed to its counterpart which is a working health spa, thus perhaps accounting for the difference in perspective) is beautifully situated on a hilltop with commanding view, although I’m not sure that view is actually available from the dining room.

I contrast my experience with both sugar houses because there is so little posted about what actually goes on inside these places. I hope this gives some sense. If others have specifics about menus that are different, I would be interested to hear in what way. These operations are both located near rte 201 along a forested ridge between the St Lawrence and Ottawa rivers. Perhaps these operations really are muchly the same and the real difference is in the company you bring to the table, not the food. I would be happy returning to either, but might return respecting the culture of importing multiple comrades: BYOC.

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  1. Thanks for the detailed report; the fried rinds are "oreilles de crisse", which I won't translate.

    I think you lucked out on your cabane experience, yours seems to be one of the best ones, specially with that variety of desserts..
    I've never experienced the buffet style, I'd like that very much.

    9 Replies
    1. re: superbossmom

      It's not a very long drive -- an hour at most; to the end of the island and on just a bit. We had a fun sight-seeing drive home over the Grand Isle, I think it's called, into Chateauguay. Go for it! Reservations would seem sensible though the dining room is large enough that with a smaller party I image they'd squeeze you in without.

      1. re: aliris

        Hotdogs cooked in maple syrup have certainly appeared at a few sugar shacks I've been to. My best experiences have been with daycare groups when I tagged along with my sons when they were little since grown-up weekend visits always met with lots of traffic and line-ups. Plus the tour of the farm and lots of information is usually included when you are with a group. Thanks for the detailed report and apologies if us local hounds have been blasé about the subject.

        1. re: Plateaumaman

          Blasé while simultaneously hyperbolic about APDC's version. It's hard to get a handle on it all.

          You-se guys have a terrific city, with a gazillion grand eateries, that it's just hard to comprehend when you're from away. I wish I wish I wish the links feature would work because I'd like to *see* where all the mentionables are located. Even a leaf from Craigslist would help, e.g.: APDC (Plateau) -- is that even right?

          Anyway, the fact that this is a meal and not a happening is what was so confusing to me. "Brunch with family or friends" I can understand. But I was 'hearing' "Tour of local seasonal activity with brunch as related, additional side-bonus" -- and yet it's actually the opposite. Except, as I understand from you, it isn't, when the thing is preschool-bound? Even writing this out I'm still confused. But I guess there's precedent in as far as it's not unusual for the schools to work up a tradition differently from the population at large. e.g. in the states, you'd think Columbus Day was a holiday of Major Nationalistic Necessity from the way it's harped on in elementary classrooms. In reality if it's anything in the Real World, it's a shopping bonanza at the malls.

          My wrap-up would be that the CaS is the Québecois version of American Thanksgiving: a gastronomic tried-and-true theme and variations enjoyed in the company of one's own tried-and-true. Who can explain the familiar?

          1. re: aliris

            Thank you so much for your detailed report and your "outsider" impressions so that this outsider could experience it through you.

            1. re: rcianci

              Whew, I'm glad it's OK to post so much opinion and verbiage! I was worried this would be annoying....

            2. re: aliris

              There's not much to comprehend other than the fact it's been a tradition to sugar off, sort of a way to liberate ourselves from thw winter. You might be overanalyzing a bit too much. In the summer we do corn parties (épluchettes we call them), for spring we go to a cabane.

              By the way, the APDC cabane is not close to the restaurant, it's located in St-Benoit de Mirabel about 45 mins northwest of the city.

              As for your questions about the food, the cripsy thing is fried lard and is called oreilles de crisse (christ's ears). The meat pie's filling might look like cretons but it's not. The meat usually is a mix of ground beef and pork and could also contain veal. Some will put either bread crumbs or smashed potatoes for texture. I prefer the meat only version. The white beans are actualluy called fèves au lard (baked beans). The meat is usually lard or pig belly. It's usually made with either molasses or brown sugar.

              The pie you're refering to was most likely a maple syrup pie, which is pretty much the same as sugar pie with maple syrup replacing the brown sugar.

              1. re: Campofiorin

                It is actually made with maple sugar

                1. re: kpaxonite

                  Some recipes require maple syrup. That's how my mom does it anyway.

              2. re: aliris

                I think Canadian Thanksgiving is more like American Thanksgiving than a sugaring off festival at a sugar shack (or CaS!). It is a kind of harvesting celebration but I don't think it has the same connotations of a family event. Last time I went there were all kinds of groups celebrating, including a busload of nuns. But it's definitely the place the taste traditional Quebecois cooking, although I have been to sugar shacks that rather cynically tossed a bunch of store-bought ham and eggs on the table that didn't seem to be farm businesses at all. Here is an article in French that came in my mailbox today about the history of sugar shacks (hope this isn't all too off-topic)

                http://www.mont-royal.net/spip.php?pa...

        2. Thanks a lot for your lengthy report, especially the details about "the usual" for those who weren't in the know :)

          2 Replies
          1. re: afoodyear

            i heard on tv a review of mitsou on a sugar shack in old montreal march 13-april 11 with music although pricey -50$ adults- it could appeal to visitors passing through with no transportation to countryside. It is in the glassed in pavillion Jacques cartier quai, details at www. lacabane.ca menu, hours 514-914-9661

            1. re: wilmagrace

              La Cabane's menu is not at all traditional cabane à sucre, though.
              Might be a good idea for locals looking for novelty, but I would suggest a 'real' cabane in the woods for tourists that know little about this tradition.

          2. Interesting report! I never gave cabane à sucre so much thought, because, well, it's "the usual" for me :grin:

            Think of it as a combo backcountry lumberjack food, made with salted or preserved pork products and other easily stored items like flour, lard, potatoes, sugar, salt, beans. Lots of energy to keep a lumberjack going! Add lots of syrup and you've got your spring ritual.

            Personally, I can only stand so much sugar, fat and salt, and maybe I'll get a slight craving every five years or so, despite being a "Pure Laine." I got to go every year during elementary and high school... enough for a lifetime.

            So, for me, the usual has always meant:
            Oreille de christ (deep fried pork rinds. D I S G U S T I N G)
            Baked beans with lard, in syrup
            Some sort of omelet dish, usually with syrup
            Ham and bacon, probably with syrup
            Some kinds of pickles and chow chow (if you're lucky)
            Boiled potatoes, maybe with carrots on the side
            Sugar pie (hey, got syrup in it!)
            Pets de soeur or grand-pères (doughs cooked in or with syrup!)
            Maple taffy (again, with the syrup!)

            No salads, no fresh veggies, and certainly no nod to healthy eating! And drinking too much maple water has an... unfortunate "accelerating" effect on one's digestion. Not to put too fine a point on it.

            3 Replies
            1. re: TheSnowpea

              Snowpea, what's "chow chow" (with the pickles)?

              1. re: kpzoo

                There are the pickles and the chow chow which we also call ketchup aux fruits. Some sort of mixed fruit ketchup that is sweet and vinegary.

                1. re: Campofiorin

                  mmm ketchup maison!

                  this is what I commonly know as chow chow- delicious stuff.

                  http://www.crosseandblackwell.com/pro...