This short essay explores the differences between the maple syrups of Vermont and Quebec in terms of production, processing, and quality control.
Le sirop d’érable : les différences entre le Vermont et le Québec
Cet article analyse les différences entre la production, la transformation et la régulation de la qualité du sirop d’érable cultivé à Vermont et à Québec.
Before colonization and the subsequent creation of the nation-states of Canada and the United States, sugar maple trees, or acer saccharum, filled the northern forests. Tapping sap from maple trees originated as a Native American practice extending through Quebec, Ontario, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York State, and into the midwest. In Vermont there is evidence that the Abenaki taught the colonists how to gouge the maple tree with an axe and then use bark buckets to collect the sap. There is some scholarly controversy as to whether it was Native Americans or early European explorers or colonists who developed the method for boiling the sap down into sweet syrup. In any event, by the 1700s, using large earthenware or ironware kettles to boil sap into syrup became a widely accepted practice. As Englishman Alexander Henry noted of his Canadian sojourn from 1770-1776, “[w]e hunted and fished, yet sugar was our principal food during the whole month of April.”  Up until the 20th century, making maple sugar was a family and community-based activity. Most rural families owned lands with a “sugarbush” or a stand of sugar maple trees. Sap was boiled into syrup using large cast iron kettles that were hung on tree trunks outside with an open wood fire underneath. By the late 19th century, metal evaporators were introduced, first invented by David Ingalls in Dunham, Quebec and soon updated and adopted by Vermont sugarmakers. This technological innovation, among others, allowed for the development of commercial maple syrup production.
The more contemporary histories of maple syrup-making in Vermont and Quebec have similarities and differences. By the 20th century, making maple syrup had moved beyond the backyard woodlot to include commercial production. In the process of seeking markets for maple syrup beyond the immediate region, a shared North American mentality generally ignoring the link between taste and place is clear. Within Vermont, therefore, the state’s sense of its own uniqueness has traditionally centred on notions of “purity” and “quaintness.” This approach works since there has been a continuous emphasis on small-scale maple syrup production throughout the state. Most maple syrup producers make their syrup on their own for friends, family, and local markets, with a small group of blender-packers dominating larger regional, national, and global markets. A number of regional maple sugaring associations exist, but there is no central authority for the approximately 2,000 sugarmakers located throughout the state. A sense of place, therefore, informs much of the identity of Vermont maple syrup, but not a sensory notion of place.
In Quebec, maple syrup production is vital to the province’s agricultural sector, with the province producing over 70 percent of the world’s maple syrup. Over the past several decades the Quebec Federation of Maple Syrup Producers has played a dominant role in all aspects of the commercial production of maple syrup for the 10,000 sugarmakers in the province. The striking difference between Quebec and Vermont is that Quebec now primarily sells maple syrup in bulk (85 percent of its total production in 2005), mixing syrups from every region. Much of this syrup is used in processing and also to redistribute maple products in bulk or prepackaged form. Moreover, the classification of quality is based on grades of colours reflecting some differences in taste. But tastes are neither linked to places of production and their organoleptic qualities, nor are differences among places considered valuable. To a certain extent, the decision to commercialize maple syrup in Quebec has negated the terroir. Even if the monopoly of the Quebec federation is contested by some producers, their only possibility to contest is to sell their syrup at their own properties or in small quantities at local stores.
James M. Lawrence and Rux Martin, Sweet Maple:Life, Lore & Recipes from the Sugarbush (Shelburne, VT: Chapters Publishing Ltd, 1993): 63.
Amy Trubek is an assistant professor in the Nutrition and Food Science department at the University of Vermont. A food anthropologist, she is the author of the recently published book, The Taste of Place, A Cultural Journey Into Terroir (2008) and Haute Cuisine: How the French Invented the Culinary Profession (2000). She teaches courses in the contemporary food system, food and culture, food history, and qualitative research methods. Her research interests include the history of the culinary profession, the globalization of the food supply, local foods, the relationship between taste and place, and domestic cooking in the contemporary United States.
Amy Trubek est professeur assistante au département de nutrition et de science de l’alimentation à l’université du Vermont. S’intéressant principalement à l’anthropologie culinaire, elle a récemment publié The Taste of Place, A Cultural Journey Into Terroir (2008), et Haute Cuisine: How the French Invented the Culinary Profession (2000). Elle donne par ailleurs des cours sur le système gastronomique contemporain, l’alimentation et la culture, l’histoire de l’alimentation ainsi que des cours de méthodologie en recherche qualitative. Ses principaux intérêts de recherches comprennent l’histoire des professions culinaires, la globalisation des ressources alimentaires, les nourritures locales, les relations entre les goûts et les lieux ainsi que la cuisine domestique dans les États-Unis d’aujourd’hui.