Adventures in Sugaring
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!”
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.