The Origins of Maple Syrup
maple syrup in our roots
Through the ages, the simple act of collecting and enjoying the sweetness of the sap from a particular tree in springtime has become a major Québec industry producing a “liquid gold” that is prized here and around the world.
To First Nations people we owe the discovery of maple sap, which they had been harvesting long before Europeans arrived in the New World. Some historians believe the natives of this land, at some point in the distant past, desperate to avoid starvation, started cutting bark off maple trees. The cambium, the edible part between the hardwood and bark, is thought to have been a survival food. This presumably led to collection of the thin sap that the cuts caused to flow from the trees, which could have been used to cook game, corn, beans, and so on.
Red and silver sugar maple trees hold a treasure within: their sap, also known as maple water. The freezing temperatures of the Québec winter are followed by the warmth of spring, causing the sap to flow in the trees. Today, it is harvested by producers and transformed into 100% pure maple products such as syrup, butter, and sugar. All are made of this single ingredient.
Take a look at this short video that illustrates the origins of maple syrup:
Europeans Discover Maple Sap
Jacques Cartier was the first person from foreign shores to see the sugar maple tree and its sap. He reported that the tree was called a “couton” in the native tongue.
The Evolution of Cooking
Europeans and First Nations shared their food preparation techniques with each other and, over time, created new, blended ways of cooking. They drink maple water as a fortifying tonic.
Iron cauldrons come with settlers from France, and the Europeans and First Nations discover how to make sugar in them from maple sap.
A Businesswoman with Flair
King Louis XIV loved sugared almonds. Montréal entrepreneur Agathe de Repentigny gained great favour with the monarch by sending him maple sugar. In 1701, she exported 30,000 pounds of it to France.
First Nations made bannock from corn flour, bear fat, and maple sugar, a handy food on long journeys adopted by the French-Canadian traders known as coureurs des bois.
Until this point, axes were used to slash notches in maple trees to release their sap. They began fashioning wooden taps to drive into the trees instead, one of the first examples of maple innovation.
The first known sugar shacks appear in the woods of Québec.
A standard of Québec culture today, the first sugar shacks (made of wooden planks) were built in the mid-19th Century. As early as 1868, “sugar parties” were being organized for city dwellers nostalgic (even then!) for their country roots.
Metal Replaces Wood
Metal boilers and taps take the place of those made of wood.
Invention of the Evaporator
The evaporator is invented and patented in the United States. The Small brothers adapt it for maple syrup production in Québec. It eventually displaces the iron pot, resulting in greater quality and quantities.
Maple syrup is boiled to a temperature of 112° C and, voila, maple butter is invented.
The First Can of Maple Syrup
The 591 ml can of maple syrup appears on grocery store shelves, adorned by the legendary image we still see today. (The design was chosen in a contest.) Even more significantly, maple syrup in a can led to it becoming more popular than maple sugar.
The Tubing System
Maple syrup producers begin collecting sap with connected tubing systems, replacing the bucket and barrel, horse and cart method of the previous 100+ years.
Scientists identify the presence of vitamins and minerals in maple syrup.
Researchers discover that maple syrup contains a molecule that is found nowhere else in nature. It is a polyphenol, considered beneficial to human health. They call it Quebecol.
Maple water appears as a beverage, made of 100% pure Québec maple. Its quality is guaranteed by the new certification called NAPSI.
Québec accounts for 72% of world maple syrup production and maple products are now being exported to more than 60 countries.
With the issue of 7 million new taps, 1,200 new maple enterprises go into business.
Québec enterprises are now generating an average of 150 million pounds of maple syrup, with a record of more than 211 million pounds of maple syrup in 2022.