An invitation to a trip through time with the maple, from 1534 to the present
1557 – The oldest reference to the sugar maple and maple sap is found in a text published in 1557 by André Thévet, a cosmographer who accompanied the explorers of the time to tell about their discoveries and describe the new lands they found. In this case Thévet describes the discovery of maple sap. Upon closer inspection, this appears to be an event that happened to Jacques Cartier in the spring of 1536 or 1542: “The country and land of Canada are beautiful and well situated with very good soil, aside from the intemperate climate, which is a disadvantage, as you can well imagine. There are several kinds of trees and fruits of which we have no knowledge on the other side. Among them there is a tree with the thickness and shape of a large walnut tree on the other side. It remained unused for a long time until someone tried to cut one down, releasing a kind of sugar, which they found to be as tasty and as delicate as any good wine from Orleans or Beaune. This was the opinion of our people who experienced it, i.e. the Captain and other gentlemen of his company, who immediately filled four or five large pots with it. Since those Canadians tasted that liquid, ‘tis a wonder they do not jealously keep this tree for themselves since it produces such an excellent drink. In their language this tree is called ‘couton.’”
1606 – Marc Lescarbot, a lawyer, traveller and writer, describes the harvesting and evaporation procedure for maple water by the Micmacs. There is no reference to the production of maple sugar.
1623 – Gabriel Sagard, a French missionary and Recollect friar, writes of maple water: “when the wood started burning, if we felt sick or weak, we would cut a gash in the bark with a large knife, and with a bucket we would collect the liquid from it, which we drank as a remedy, which had little effect and which weakened us rather than fortifying us, but we used it out of necessity.”
1629 – Gabriel Sagard, again: “The interpreter of the Honquerorons told me one day that when they went a long time during the winter without anything to eat other than ‘patum’ [old French Canadian term for tobacco] and some bark from a certain tree that the mountain people [Montagnais] called michian, in the spring, they would cut a gash in the tree to get from it a sugar as sweet as honey but in very small quantities; otherwise one cannot say enough about this tree. I never tasted the liquid that comes from cutting the tree, but I believe it tastes quite good like the bark I ate among our Hurons, although not very often and more out of curiosity than necessity, especially because they have other things to eat, and so they leave that meat for the neediest Canadians, who often have nothing else.”
1675 – Chrestien Leclercq, a missionary and Recollect friar, tells about maple water that is now converted to maple sugar to be sent to France: “Maple water... is as appreciated by the French as it is by the Indians, who harvest it in the spring...One thing that is really noticeable about maple water is that during the cooking process it is reduced by a third and becomes a real syrup, which hardens and looks like sugar and takes on a reddish colour. They make rolls with it, which are sent to France as a curiosity...”
1685 – Michel Sarazin, a surgeon and barber, describes how maple water is collected among the Native American peoples. “I also observed the Indian methods for collecting maple syrup. The men are responsible for drilling the holes and for the harvest, and the responsibility for evaporating the sap falls to the ‘squaw,’ the Indian woman in each hut. In 1685 I participated actively in industrializing this substance, which provides excellent sugar and syrup.”
1700 – Agathe de Repentigny, a business woman and textile manufacturer, sends maple sugar coated almonds to King Louis XIV to obtain the right to develop a textile production industry, which up until then was reserved for French merchants: “Mme de Repentigny engaged in a wide variety of experiments, mainly on nettles and thread made from bark, on wild cotton and wool from the Illinois ox. The king found the fabric samples well done and appreciated the homemade maple sugar-coated almonds she had sent him.”
1703 – The Baron de la Hontan (1666-1715) comes to New France as an officer at the age of seventeen. He remains there for ten years. On his return to France, starting in 1703, he publishes the highly successful Letters, Dialogs with a Savage and Memories. In the account below, he reports on the fictitious dialog between a character with his name and a Huron named Adario.
[...] Believe me, my dear brother, consider making yourself into a Huron so you can live a long time. You will drink, you will eat, you will sleep and you will hunt in peace; you will be delivered of the passions gripping the French; you will not need gold or money to be happy; you will fear neither thieves nor assassins, nor false witnesses; and if you want to become the king over all the world, you will merely have to imagine it and you will be king.
Listen, to do that I would have to have committed such grave crimes in France that I could only return there to be burned at the stake, because after all, I cannot see a more outlandish metamorphosis for a Frenchman than to become a Huron. Would I be able to withstand all the tiring pursuits we discussed? Would I have the patience to listen to the silly ramblings of your old people and your young people as you do without contradicting them. Would I be able to live on porridge, bread, Indian corn, roast meat and stew without pepper or salt? Would I be able to paint my face twenty different colours like a crazy man? Drink only maple water? Go around stark naked in the summer, eat off wooden plates? Would I be able to adjust to your never-ending meals where two or three hundred people meet to dance for two hours before and after? Would I be able to live with uncivil people, whose only way of paying a compliment is to say I honour you? No, my dear Adario, it is impossible for a Frenchman to be a Huron, whereas a Huron can easily become a Frenchman.
In other words, you prefer slavery to freedom; I am not surprised after everything you have told me. But if by chance you turned inward and were not so inclined towards the manners and customs of the French, I cannot see how the problems you just mentioned could prevent you from living like us. How hard is it for you to approve the tales of the old and the young? Don’t you have the same constraint when the Jesuits and the people above you say outlandish things? Why wouldn’t you live on porridge and all sorts of good meat? Partridge, guinea hen, rabbit, duck and venison? Are they not good roasted and stewed? What good are pepper, salt and a thousand other spices if not to ruin your health? Within two weeks, you would cease giving any thought to those drugs. How could it hurt you to paint colours on your face? You put powder and perfume on your hair and even on your clothes. Haven’t I seen Frenchmen wearing a moustache like a cat all covered with wax? As for the maple water drink, it is sweet and healthful. It tastes good and fortifies the chest (I’ve seen you drink some more than four times) unlike wine and brandy, which destroy the natural heat, weaken the stomach, burn the blood, and cause drunkenness and a thousand of disorders. And how hard would it be for you to go around naked when it’s hot? At least you see that we are not as long as we are covered in front and in back. It is better to go naked than to sweat continually under the burden of so many clothes on top of each other [...].
1708 – Voyage to Acadia by Lord de Dièreville, a French explorer:”to collect this sweet liquid, which is as clear as spring water, you take an axe and chop a fairly deep hole in the shape of a trough, and carve lines in the bark leading down to this tank so that the water falls inside. When it is full, which happens quickly, as at that time, the sap is running in full force, the water falls through a small wooden spout attached to the edge of the trough into a vessel at the foot of the tree. The same thing is done on several trees at a time so that a lot of liquid runs out. It must be removed every day as long as the sap runs. It is boiled in a large cauldron until the liquid boils off; it is gradually reduced to syrup and then to a red sugar that is very good.”
1721 – Pierre-François-Xavier de Charlevoix, a Jesuit and a French professor, biographer and historian proposes a theory about the reciprocal influence among our ancestors and the Indian people in the development of maple sugar production technologies: “It was clear that the Savages, who were very familiar with all the virtues of their plants, had always used this water and that they still did today, but they definitely did not know how to make sugar from it, as we taught them how to do it. The additional step for making sugar is to let it boil until it is the right consistency; it is then purified automatically and no foreign object needs to be added. You only need to be careful not to overcook the sugar and to skim off the foam thoroughly.”
1724 – Joseph François Lafitau, a Jesuit and author, describes various uses of products from the maple: “Maple water is very nice to drink without cooking. It turns bitter naturally and makes a passable vinegar if kept for awhile. You can make a very good hydromel with its syrup, but you could not make brandy from it the way you do with sugarcane. The Savages cook their Indian corn in their Maple syrup to make a sort of caramelized cake. These are used as provisions for all their trips. This flour keeps better.”
1739 – Henri Louis Duhamel du Ponceau or du Monceau wrote the “Treaty of the Forests,” his fundamental work representing 40 years of research. In it he discusses our sugar maple. To round out his knowledge of the French and European forests, he attempted to enrich his country’s forest heritage with new species and varieties of trees. He hoped that some foreign trees would be useful, and so he ordered tons of grains, especially Canadian, and a number of plants: the “laurel of the Iroquois,” the “red cedar of the Fort of Frontenac,” the “wax tree of Acadia” the “asimina” or “paw paw tree,” the Juneberry tree and the sugar maple.
1749 – Peter Kalm, a botanist, attests to the importance to maple sugar for consumption, a few years before the conquest: “The sugar maple grows fairly abundantly in Canada in the forest and becomes a tall tree. It is from that tree that every year such a large quantity of sugar is extracted. Nearly all the soldiers of the fort where we are staying and nearly all the peasants in this region make it every year in abundance, but they say that the Savages of America are the true masters of the technique.”
1749 – Peter Kalm, a botanist, describes the production techniques: “You start by tapping the sap from the tree as soon as the snow starts to melt in the spring, and the tree generally produces sap for a period of three weeks. The more it freezes during the night the more the sap flows during the following day. If the weather is too hot, the sap stops flowing. You drill a hole in the tree to form a spout into which the sap can flow just as in our country we collect birch sap. When this technique is performed on the trees properly, they are not damaged in any way; to the contrary, they can give sap for a fair number of years. The tree must be cut upwards and not downwards, because in the latter case, the rain could penetrate it and cause the tree to rot. You also need to be careful to cut the tree every year on the same side. If you cut it once on one side and once on the other, the tree will die in a few years. Nearly all trees give the same amount of sap but tall trees give more; the ones that have been tapped for many years give proportionately less, but their sap is sweeter. Normally one tree can yield twelve pots (double pint in Swedish) in the space of twenty-four hours because the sap flows without stopping. From one cask of sap you can get ten pounds of good sugar after cooking. During one spring season, two people can easily make 200 pounds of sugar. Once you have collected a cask of sap, or the desired quantify, you make the sugar as follows: take a large iron or copper cauldron and fill it with sap. Cook it until the liquid is so thick that you can no longer stir it with a spoon. When this thickness is obtained, the dough is transferred to a mould or a base, as you wish, and when it cools, the sugar is ready. The quality of the cauldron used, whether it is iron or copper, is said to be unimportant. If you want to obtain syrup, then do not continue cooking until the sap becomes that thick, but stop the cooking when the sap starts to thicken. This way, you can make a syrup with the desired consistency. This syrup is fairly sweet; I drank some today; the captain poured me a little in a glass and I added some water, but it was still so sweet that I had to add much more water before I could drink it. It has the most enjoyable taste imaginable. However, this syrup is very liquid and barely thicker than water. When you put the syrup in water, you get an enjoyable drink that is good for your health. Every year, large quantities of this sugar are sent to France because it is believed to be infinitely superior to any other sugar for your health. It is excellent, especially for the lungs.”
1751 – Denis Diderot, a writer and philosopher, writes in his encyclopaedia, the first work of its kind in the history of mankind: “Maple sugar (Nat. Hist.): the Savages of Canada and other parts of Northern Canada make a kind of sugar with a liquid they get from a species of maple, which the English call sugar maple for that reason. It is referred to in the article MAPLE. This tree provides the inhabitants of those harsh climates with a sugar that partly makes up for the fact that that sugar cane does not grow in their region. Ray calls it Acer Momendum candidum; the Iroquois give it the name of ozeketa. There is yet another species of maple which Gronovius & Linnaeous call acer folio palmato angulato flore fere apelato fssili, fructu pendunculato corymbo. See Gron. Flora virgin. The French call it plain or plane [sic] red maple & the English maple .The sugar that comes from this tree is of very good quality and it is considered very healthful. But it is the sugar maple that gives the most plentiful amount. It is prevalent in the cold northern parts of America & becomes rarer as you approach the south. There it is found only on very high mountains & and on the side with a northern exposure, which explains why this tree requires a very cold country.
Here is the method used by the Savages and the French to collect the sugar. In the spring, when the snow begins to disappear, these trees fill up with sugar. When a cut is made in them or when a hole is bored into them with a drill, and when round holes are made in it, this method causes a very abundant amount of liquid flows out of the tree and ordinarily flows for a period of three weeks. However, that depends on how much time it takes because the liquid flows in greater abundance when the snow is starting to melt and when the weather is mild, and the liquid stops flowing when it freezes or when the hog weather comes. The liquid flowing from the tree is collected in a wooden trough and through that into a bucked. When a sufficient quantity has been collected, it is put into an iron or copper cauldron that is place on the fire. The liquid is evaporated until it thickens to the point where it can no longer be stirred easily. Then you take the cauldron off the fire and stir the residue, which becomes solid and concrete when cooling similar to raw sugar or molasses. You can give the sugar any shape you like by pouring it into moulds after it thickens. You can tell when the liquid is ready to crystallize or to give sugar when you see form stop forming on the surface. There is a lot of it at the start of the cooking process and you have to be careful to remove it as it forms; then you take some thickened syrup with a spoon to see if in cooling it is converted to sugar. Then you remove the cauldron from the fire and place it on coals, constantly stirring so that the sugar does not stick to the cauldron and so that it doesn’t burn. With this method, the sugar changes into a material similar to flour when put in a cool place. It is a brown colour before being refined and shaped into flat cakes the size of your hand. People who take more care in making this sugar clarify it with egg white during cooking and then they have a perfectly white sugar.
Maple sugar is considered much better for your health than ordinary sugar & it is touted as a remedy for colds and lung ailments. But on the other hand, it does not dissolve as easily in water as cane sugar & and you need a much larger quantity as a sweetener. It is possible that if more care were taken in preparing it than is taken by the Savages and the French of Canada, more could be gotten from this sugar than we know & and it could be improved considerably. The liquid that comes from the maple when it is placed in a barrel and exposed to the summer sun makes a very good vinegar.
The Savages and the French of Canada sometimes mix maple sugar with wheat or corn flour & make a dough they carry with them as provisions for the long trips they make. They find that this mixture, which they call quisera, provides them with a very nourishing food in any country where they cannot find provisions. The inhabitants of those regions also eat this sugar spread on their bread, with each person stocking up in the spring for the whole year.
They also make a kind of syrup with the liquid from the maple. To make this syrup, the liquid is not boiled as much as when you want to reduce it to sugar. This syrup is very sweet, very refreshing and has a very pleasant taste when mixed with water, but it tends to get sour & cannot be carried far. It is also used to make different kinds of jams....”
1755 – Duhamel du Monceau, a French physician, botanist and agronomist, shows us maple water through the eyes of a scientist of his time:”The liquid from those two maples is crystal-clear like the best filtered water; it is very cool and leaves a small and very pleasant sweet taste in your mouth. Maple water is sweeter than water from the Plain Maple, but the sugar from the Plain Maple tastes better than the sugar from the Maple. Both kinds of water are very healthful, & I cannot see any harm come to anyone who drinks it, even after violent exercise and copious sweating. It passes very quickly through the urine. When concentrated through evaporation, this water produces a raw, reddish sugar with a most agreeable taste.”
1791 – Nicolas-Gaspard Boisseau, a solicitor, witnessed techniques for collecting maple water at the end of the 18th century: “On around 25 March of every year, the inhabitants who want to make maple sugar (the only sugar that is made in this region) go to a maple grove with a large ten-bucket cauldron, axes, tinder boxes, gunflints, shovels and food, which they carry in a little sugar yoke around their necks since it is impossible to get there on horseback. Once there, they begin to make a hole in the snow down to the ground on a space of around 20 feet. There they build a small round cabin with a two-foot opening left in the top to let the smoke through from the fire they build in the middle of the cabin. When that is done, they make troughs two feet long and ten inches wide. They make as many as there are trees to be tapped, normally two or three hundred.”
1840 – Napoléon Legendre, a lawyer, journalist and writer, looks back with nostalgia at the 18th century techniques for tapping, harvesting and boiling. He describes them in great detail: …”Finally one morning, the sugar-maker, after consulting the clouds and examining the sun at great length, declares that the day is right for tapping. We don our snowshoes again and head joyfully into the forest. There was a white frost during the night. The crust holds and we move along quickly. The sugar-maker has his axe, his gouge and his mallet. The children ride on sleds of large packages of wooden wedges. I can assure you that they are not hard to pull. Once in the woods, they distribute the wedges here and there and then the containers [cassots] and buckets are loaded onto the sleds. They attack the first tree. It is a solemn moment. They choose a favourable spot on the southern or south-western side and cut a small very neat diagonal gash in the bark and the tap wood. The true test of this art is to complete the operation with two blows of the axe. A hole is drilled above it with the gouge and the mallet and then the wedge is set in the hole, tilting it down a bit. Then the bucket or the container is set beneath the lower end of the wedge. Now is up to the maple to do its duty by letting its sweet sap flow generously. In the olden days when they used small troughs instead of buckets and containers, the work took less time. Nothing had to be transported as the trough remained all winter, leaning against the foot of the tree. All they had to do was release the lower part that was still under the snow. The trough was carved using a tool they called a “tille” or “quille” (the ‘erminette-gouge’), which has practically disappeared entirely from our countryside.”
1850 – Jean-Claude Dupont is an historian who wrote the book The Time of Sugar, published in 2004: “Before 1850, the water was boiled in an iron cauldron hanging from a tree branch. That was the pot hook. That rustic arrangement placed in the forest, often without shelter, was not very economical given the heat loss. It was replaced by a cabin with a fireplace of old bricks or stones supporting a large container, the flat pan: there again, it was not very practical because you had to lift a corner of the pan to complete the cooking and to make sure the maple syrup reached the proper temperature, i.e. 216° to 218° F or 102° to 103° C.”
1868 – Jean Provencher was one of the great historians of Quebec. He was just as excited about minor historical events as he was about major ones. In the book The Four Seasons in the Saint Lawrence Valley,” published in 2008, he writes that in 1868 “they held the first sugar outings to visit the sugar producers.”
1876 – Hiram A. Lawrence invents the metal spout: "Patent No. 6208. Filing date: 1876. 'Sugar-making pipe' [the metal sap spout], Hiram A. Lawrence." Lawrence states that his metal spouts no longer have those defects. His is equipped on one end with a hook placed in the tap in the tree trunk until a collar at the base of the groove touches the cork. When the bucket presses down on the groove in the metal spout, the hook catches and the collar prevents the sap from spilling
1889 – The Small brothers of Waterloo patent an evaporator for maple groves
19e century – Jean-Claude Dupont, in his book “Sugar Times,” tells us about some traditions that have disappeared. He writes: “Some religious ceremonies have completely disappeared, like the blessing of the maples held every year in the 19th century. The village priest in clerical robes followed by his parishioners went to a sugar shack and blessed the maple, sprinkling holy water. At least two accounts mentioned that this holy water was made of maple sap, but that tradition was probably local if it truly existed.”
1925 – In his work published in 2004, Jean-Claude Dupont tells us how much maple sugar production was accounted for in farm income. In his book “Sugar Times” he demonstrates that an average sugar shack accounted for 40% of a farm’s income. According to the census reports of the time for Quebec as a whole, he is right.
1932 – Exports reach record highs according to the magazine “The Bee and the Maple,” dating back to that time. In 1932, the largest order ever received for a sale outside of Quebec comes from an English house. The order is for more than 20,000 pounds of maple syrup. In the same year, we learn that orders from that country have doubled. The initiative aimed at better publicising the different uses of maple products was launched by the provincial agriculture minister of the time, Adélard Godbout.
1932 – A new product appears on the markets: maple butter. This new product made in bars by “the Maple Syrup Producers of Quebec,” now Citadelle, is special in terms of quality and flavour. It is the only maple butter at that time that can qualify as 100% pure.
1951 – The legendary 591 ml maple syrup can appears, along with the drawing decorating it since that time, the result of a contest held at the time by the Ministry of Agriculture.
1970 – In the mid-sixties, technology entered to maple production sector with the development of networks of piping in Quebec’s sugar bushes. These plastic pipes replace buckets, casks, horses and tractors. Thanks to a vacuum pump system, maple water goes directly from the tree to maple water storage tanks. Every spout is connected to the system. The system starts up automatically once the temperature is high enough for the sap to flow.
1980 – The appearance of the so-called reverse osmosis technique in the 1980s is another technological revolution. The use of a reverse osmosis membrane for the partial concentration of the maple water is in line with the spirit and the letter of the regulations governing maple products, since this technique is not the same thing as refining. With this technique, it is possible to concentrate the soluble elements in maple water. It makes it possible to lower production costs and the work time of the maple producers’ families, but it keeps the taste and characteristics intact that make maple products an exceptionally natural sugar and one that has been appreciated for hundreds of years.
Today – maple products are exported to more than 50 countries around the world. Although the United States and Japan are the main destinations, maple products are found on all five continents. It is a well-known and valued product, recognized by a number of chefs in our country and around the world as one of the world’s major products. It is prized because of its intrinsic qualities and because it is rare and can be produced only in the northeast of the North American continent, primarily in Quebec, which accounts for 71.4% of the world’s production. It also contains varying quantities of amino acids, proteins, organic acids and vitamins. Quebecol was discovered in 2010. This is a molecule unique to maple water, which is part of the polyphenol family of molecules that are good for your health.