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.