What's the Deal with...Sugar Shacks

Rachel Tepper Paley
March 21, 2014

You know that thing? That thing that sounds like something you should already know about, so you don’t really want to ask? Well, we know about it, and we’ll give you the intel. Welcome to What’s the Deal With.

Photo credit: Getty Images

It’s finally maple syrup season! Yes, the stickiest of annual events typically starts in February, but this year the brutal winter literally stopped sap dead in its drippy tracks. Some sugar shacks, from New York to Wisconsin, are only now opening their doors to maple syrup enthusiasts.

But wait a second… what the heck is a sugar shack? Let us explain.

What They Are: In the most general sense, sugar shacks are houses in which maple syrup producers boil the sap collected from nearby sugar maple trees to create the sweet condiment we so love to drizzle over our pancakes. But sugar shacks vary from spartan to sumptuous in size and appearance; a simple shack in upstate New York might look entirely different from the ornate houses that dot the Quebec countryside.

Where They Come From: The practice of sugaring, or culling maple tree sap and turning it to syrup, was first refined by the native inhabitants of America and Canada. Swiss and French settlers learned these methods and set up small sugar shacks starting in the 17th century.

Where to Find Them: You’ll see American sugar shacks in New Hampshire, New York, Indiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Vermont. Yet more than 75 percent of the world’s maple syrup is produced in the Canadian province of Quebec. Hundreds of sugar shacks, or cabanes à sucre, produce top-notch stuff just outside Montreal and Quebec City.

How They’re More than “Shacks”: Lots of sugar shacks are “shacks” in name only. Many operate toasty restaurants where patrons can order maple syrupdoused specialties, or tasting rooms where one can sample just-made maple syrup, maple candies, or other delectables. Tree genetics, the soil in which it grows, the weather during the sugaring season, and processing techniques can all affect the taste of maple syrup—a good argument for hitting up more than one shack.

We were particularly enchanted by a New York Times account of Sucrerie de la Montagne, a Quebec operation with a vast hall that serves traditional Quebequois fare including meat pies, sausage, bacon, and (of course) maple syrup, which patrons wolf down against a backdrop of festive live folk music.

Jaw-Dropping Evidence of Awesome: If we haven’t yet been able to convince you that sugar shacks are a gastronome’s dream, consider the below food photos snapped by a colleague at the Cabanes à Sucre Au Pied de Cochon, which is operated by Montreal chef Martin Picard in the French-Canadian town of Mirabel in Quebec.

If you need us, we’ll be on the next train to Mirabel.

Oh, you know. Just a pile sausage and other meats. Photo credit: Paul Hurlock-Dick

Squash risotto with apple and sausage. Photo credit: Paul Hurlock-Dick

Yes, this is a foie grastopped apple pie. Photo credit: Paul Hurlock-Dick