The coziest way to spend a spring day in Montreal’s snowy countryside is at a “cabane à sucre,” or sugar shack, where maple syrup is made and hearty feasts are on offer.
Québecers are a hardy bunch and nowhere is that as evident as on the plate—French Canadian cuisine is not for the faint of heart. Case in point: Québec’s most famous dish, poutine. French fries doused in brown gravy topped with chunks of fresh cheddar curds is the kind of dish you enjoy after a hard day of skiing, a long trek snowshoeing in the woods or, most famously, as a great hangover cure.
And in late winter through early spring, that heartiness is on particularly notable display in Québec’s countryside at the sugar shack, known as a cabane à sucre.
Although maple syrup production extends west to Ontario, east to the Maritimes, and all the way down to the United States through New England to Virginia, Canada produces 71 percent of the world’s maple syrup, 91 percent of which is produced in Québec. With hundreds of sugar shacks strewn across the province, visitors have plenty of options for enjoying the traditional cabane à sucre feast.
And feast you will. While there are variations, the sugar shack menu is pretty much set in stone. Expect to begin with a soupe au pois (pea soup), pain croûté (crusty bread), followed by jambon fumé à l’érable (maple-smoked ham), fèves au lard (baked beans), and an omelette soufflée (souffléd omelette). Following that there are oreilles de crises (fried pork rinds), ragoût de boulettes (stew with pork meatballs), and tourtière (meat pie).
Condiments include homemade fruit ketchup and pickles, especially gherkins and pickled beets. For dessert there’s sugar pie, crêpes, and/or pancakes doused with maple syrup. As a grand finale, diners head outside to enjoy hot tire, or maple taffy rolled off a bed of fresh snow.
The sugar shack feasting usually takes place at midday, when visitors are encouraged to head out into the woods—pre- or post-dining—to peek into the buckets fixed to maple trees to capture the sap that will become the basis of the meal. Once inside the cabane, the enticing smells of wood smoke and pea soup fill the air as diners sit at communal tables, elbow to elbow, watching dishes arrive in waves.
There’s a real sense of joviality in a crowded sugar shack, and once you’ve shared a plate of fried pork rinds with the strangers around you, they will be strangers no more. Purists won’t hesitate to douse the entire meal with a good glug of maple syrup—it’s that mingling of sweet and salty wood-smoked flavors that makes this meal so uniquely delicious.
Many Québécois families have their own sugar shacks, where this traditional feast is enjoyed en famille after buckets of maple water are carried into the shack to be boiled down to make syrup, justifying the meal’s high calorie count. But even if your physical activity for the day is reduced to a walk in the woods after the feast, don’t miss the opportunity to get a taste of this cornerstone of Québécois culture. The height of the season is February, March, and April, with some cabanes stretching service out to May, and still others offering it year-round.
Here are a few standout sugar shacks, all within about an hour’s drive of Montreal.
Sucrerie de la Montagne, Rigaud: This famous sugar shack is a tourist mecca (it’s the one Anthony Bourdain visited when he came to Montreal). It’s got the whole spoon-playing, sleigh-riding, “tire”-eating experience down to a science. There's a pretty snazzy general store and gift shop next door for those looking for everything from maple candy to maple bubble bath. Open year-round. Full menu: $29-$38.
The family option
Cabane à Sucre Bouvrette, St. Jérôme: In operation since 1947, this family-run sugar shack is one of the closest to the city and is especially family friendly. The food is traditional and just plain excellent. For kids, there’s a train ride through the woods and a small farm that houses turkeys, ducks, baby rabbits, and llamas. If you’re up to it, there’s dancing on Friday and Saturday evenings. Full menu: $18-$24.
Cabane du Pic Bois, Brigham: Located in the Eastern Townships southeast of Montreal, this terrific shack offers no show or petting zoo, but the food is very good and the syrup is amazing. Not to be missed is the Pic Bois’s maple vinegar, a winning condiment no sugar-shack-lovin’ Québecer should be without. Full menu: $35.
Cabane à Sucre Au Pied de Cochon and La Cabane d’à Côté, Mirabel: Québec’s most famous chef, Martin Picard, has turned the sugar shack experience into a gastronomic feast at his famous cabane. The portions are overly generous, the ingredients are luxurious, and the wine list is superb, so tables book up far in advance. Picard opened a smaller, more traditional shack just up the road called La Cabane d’à Côté, which has more availability and is rumored to be even better (reservations for groups of four required). Full menu: $56-$57.