By Lawrence Belanger
Local Journalism Initiative
It’s the midst of the 2023 maple season in the Townships, when residents of the region flock to sugar shacks across Quebec to get a taste of the classic Canadian ingredient. The Record spoke with Joannie Paquette, proprietor of the Chalet des Erables in Cookshire-Eaton, to talk about how this season has been, and to share a bit about what maple syrup represents to her and her business.
“It’s been a great season,” said Paquette, who runs the maple operation with her husband. “The phone is ringing nonstop,” she added, stating “we have a full house every weekend.”
Because of the weather, the season started earlier than usual, which enabled Chalet des Erables to produce their first barrels of syrup on Feb 8. This year in particular, “the water is very sugary,” explained Paquette, meaning less of it needs to be tapped from the trees to boil into syrup, although the cloudy weather lately has reduced production beyond what “we expect”, she noted. After a pause in production that ended last week, Paquette says she and her husband believe this week and next will be good for tapping.
For Paquette, maple syrup represents a local tradition that fosters community. “People come here to have a good time and make memories,” she explained over the phone. She described sugar shack customers as needing syrup in their life: “it flows in their blood.”
“People love syrup so much, it’s part of our tradition and life,” added Paquette.
While she may believe that the business will never crash due to the cultural value of maple syrup in the region, Paquette explained that the economics are still uncertain.
“There are a lot of challenges in running a shack,” said the proprietor. For example, it can be difficult to find employees for the business, due to the truncated work season. “People don’t want to drive to Cookshire just to work 10 days,” explained Paquette, but luckily they’re surrounded by family and friends whom she said were able to “give a hand here and there” as they need. Furthermore, sugar shacks are at the mercy of the weather. “Two years ago,” remembered Paquette, “we almost didn’t produce any syrup,” due to the cold temperature. When temperatures did rise, it quickly became too hot and the trees couldn’t produce any sap.
Regarding the production process, “we use tubing, not buckets,” explained Paquette. They collect sap from the trees when the temperature is above freezing, and concentrate it through osmosis, which removes the water content while keeping the sugar. After boiling the concentrated sap until the right sugar concentration, Chalet de Erables then packages it into barrels or cooks it for other maple products.
Demand for these products remains consistent, according to Paquette. Maple butter is always a fav product of their customers, which “tastes like heaven”. Tastes and preferences for syrup have changed recently, however. “In the past years,” recalled Paquette, “light syrup was popular, but [now] people are noticing darker syrups are more tasty,” leading to their increasing popularity, especially for cooking.
“We try to make different products,” she added, stating that they try to make a variety of “everything for everybody” when it comes to maple syrup.
Indicative of the popularity of the season this year, Paquette noted that their lunch spots were full for the season, but they still had some dinner and brunch space. Other sugar shacks in the area include A la Caban au Bec Sucre, Erabliere Gareau, and Erabliere Le Jardin Sucre. The season ends once the trees start budding, as the sap becomes bitter.