Ad­ven­tures in Sug­ar­ing

Stanstead Journal - - FRONT PAGE - Vic­to­ria Vanier, Comp­ton

Walk­ing into the sugar shack of Jean-Pierre Charuest and Lisette St-James, own­ers of Erabliere des Sit­telles, in Comp­ton, the first thing that struck me was that won­der­ful scent of cooked maple sap and wood smoke, the true her­ald of spring in south­ern Que­bec. Un­fa­mil­iar

with the Erabliere des Sit­telles or its own­ers, I had elected to visit their maple farm af­ter learn­ing that they pro­duced not only syrup, but many other maple sugar delecta­bles, a rar­ity now among sugar pro­duc­ers.

“We make maple but­ter, tir, cones, pow­dered maple sugar, maple gran­ules, maple caramel, maple bricks, both soft and hard, and maple candies. I make the prod­ucts ar­ti­sanally, in very small batches,” said Mr. Charuest whose real job is that of As­sis­tant Di­rec­tor at the Dairy and Swine Re­search and De­vel­op­ment Cen­tre, more fa­mil­iarly known as the Len­noxville ex­per­i­men­tal farm. We were chat­ting in the kitchen at­tached to the sugar shack, in front of a ta­ble of finely-crafted maple sugar prod­ucts. A world map hang­ing be­hind the ta­ble showed the dozens of des­ti­na­tions that their treats had trav­elled to, thanks to many of the in­ter­na­tional col­leagues they’ve met through their work at the re­search cen­tre. “These are like in­ter­na­tional pass­ports for trav­el­ers,” said Jean-Pierre, hold­ing up a box of maple candy. “Peo­ple from other coun­tries don’t al­ways know what to do with syrup, but they know what to do with candies!” added Lisette.

“Our maple bush is a hobby that oc­cu­pies us twelve months of the year and very in­tensely for two months,” com­mented the sugar pro­duc­ers. Jean-Pierre and Lisette, who also works at the cen­tre but as a lab tech­ni­cian, are on their an­nual two-month ‘leave’, im­mersed in the ‘sweet sea­son’, boil­ing sap over a wood fire, trans­form­ing the syrup into an ar­ray of sugar prod­ucts, and sell­ing it all to their reg­u­lar, and loyal, cus­tomers.

“For us, it’s im­por­tant to know our clients. The woman who just called, I know her by her first name and even what she likes to eat! It’s part of the pro­ject to be in con­tact with peo­ple,” ex­plained Ms. St-James.

The cou­ple’s maple “ad­ven­ture” be­gan ten years ago when they pur­chased the Comp­ton prop­erty while liv­ing in Sher­brooke with their four chil­dren. “I had skied on that prop­erty when I was a girl and one of the first things that Jean-Pierre and I did, as a cou­ple, was walk in those woods, long be­fore it went up for sale,” re­counted Lisette.

Not sur­pris­ingly, the cou­ple’s sci­en­tific back­ground comes through in their maple sugar busi­ness. Be­sides tak­ing chem­istry cour­ses to per­fect their sugar-mak­ing, they keep metic­u­lous sta­tis­tics and records and their maple bush is bio-di­verse with many ‘com­pan­ion’ trees and plants. But, this time sur­pris­ingly, they didn’t seem to miss the eight hour days at the re­search cen­tre when Jean-Pierre de­scribed their sug­ar­ing hours: “Dur­ing sug­ar­ing, the sap won’t wait. We get up at five in the morn­ing and some­times go to bed at mid­night. It’s a long shift!”

With only 1,800 trees tapped, one of the chal­lenges at Erabliere des Sit­telles is mak­ing enough syrup for ev­ery­one. “And it’s a chal­lenge to stay in good health and not get hurt. It’s very hard phys­i­cally and men­tally to do this; it’s very in­tense,” ex­plained Mr. Charuest.

Lisette, who man­ages teams of in­ter­na­tional stu­dents at the cen­tre, loves to in­tro­duce her for­eign friends to the won­drous prod­ucts of the sugar maple. “I like to share knowl­edge of the prod­uct, show the dif­fer­ent qual­i­ties and how the dif­fer­ent syrups are used for dif­fer­ent pur­poses, like us­ing the dark for cook­ing.” And their vis­i­tors don’t just sam­ple the goods, some even help with the boil­ing. “An Ital­ian col­league came once to help boil and when we fin­ished, at 1 in the morn­ing, I made crepes. He was so happy!” said Lisette.

Jean-Pierre ex­plained what he liked about his am­bi­tious hobby. “I like ex­ploit­ing such an in­cred­i­ble re­source, a for­est, to har­vest a very unique prod­uct that makes peo­ple happy. And they are dis­cov­er­ing that it has more and more virtues, such as an­tiox­i­dant prop­er­ties com­pa­ra­ble to those of cran­ber­ries. They’ve dis­cov­ered that ab­scis­sic acid, in maple syrup, can func­tion to stim­u­late in­sulin pro­duc­tion. It’s very in­ter­est­ing to be able to make this from a for­est. It’s a very no­ble prod­uct!”

photo Vic­to­ria Vanier

photo Vic­to­ria Vanier

The maple prod­ucts of Lisette St-James and Jean-Pierre Charuest, seen here light­ing up his boiler, have found their way to over a dozen coun­tries around the world.

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