My Canada, 60/150: How sweet it is

As a kid growing up in Elmira, Ontario, I knew this equation as well as I knew 2+2=4: It takes 40 gallons of maple sap boiled down to make 1 gallon of maple syrup.

And on the first Saturday in April, like the swallows to Capistrano, Elmira-raised folk return for the Elmira Maple Syrup Festival, billed as the “World’s Largest Single Day Maple Syrup Festival” by the measurer and arbiter of all oddball things, The Guinness World Book of Records.

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More than small-town expats show up. The Festival has drawn up to 65,000 people in one day to a community that had a population of 5,000 in my childhood, now grown to 9,900.

The main street is shut to vehicles and lined with booths selling food and crafts. You can queue for pancakes and maple syrup, try some maple syrup toffee that’s cooled on a bed of snow (or shaved ice, if the day is warm), or get a ticket for a tour bus that will take you to a “sugar bush” — where maple sap is gathered from trees and then converted to syrup through boiling in a “sugar shack.”

For this one day a year, traffic is bumper-to-bumper entering Elmira. Cars are directed to park in one of several lots around factories at the edge of town; people then hop on one of dozens of hay wagons pulled by tractors that ferry people from their cars to the downtown main street, and back, all day.

The festival evolves: there are now musical acts as well as a toy show and antiques show joining the craft show and quilting demonstrations that were part of the festival of my youth. Proceeds earned from the original 1965 festival went to what was then called the Elmira and District Association for Retarded Children and 40 per cent of revenues still go to its successor, Elmira District Community Living.

My father, each spring, bought a case of maple syrup in cans from a friend who had a “sugar bush” — Dad was very particular about getting the “first run”, grade A, lightest syrup. As an adult, I discovered I actually liked the heavier, darker, more flavourful “grade C” syrup made from the last run of sap (although it’s been rebranded, now, as “dark syrup.” Who wants “grade C”?)

The cans were always the same design and I recently discovered, thanks to a Globe and Mail article, “The mystery of the classic Quebec maple syrup can”,  that this red, white and sky blue graphic was commissioned in 1951 by the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers. Writer Nathalie Atkinson says there was a competition for the design but the winner’s identity is lost. “In the foreground of a sugar bush winter scene, a farmer of indeterminate gender in a barn jacket and cap collects sap by hand from a pail. Behind sits a red-roofed cabane à sucre (sugar shack) and a traditional horse-drawn sleigh.”

While Elmira might have the largest single-day festival, the province of Quebec is the maple syrup powerhouse in Canada, producing 72 per cent of the world’s maple syrup supply. That same Quebec Maple Syrup Producers group has been the epicentre of many controversies lately about price fixing and its control of the Maple Syrup Reserve, from which 540,000 gallons were stolen — 12.5 per cent of the reserve — with a street value of $13.4 million in 2012. Want more details? Vanity Fair magazine explored all the gory details in a 2016 feature, “Inside Quebec’s Great Multi-Million-Dollar Maple Syrup Heist”.

Maple syrup is yet another one of the gifts passed on to European settlers in North America from the continent’s northeast indigenous peoples, who first discovered how to create syrup from tree sap. It’s now among the top “Brand Canada” foodstuffs: every Canadiana gift shop and Canadian airport kiosk has maple syrup for sale as a take-home memory of Canada, even if you never were near a sugar bush on your trip.

I like maple syrup on pancakes, and it’s great to add a few drops to balsamic vineagar when making a salad dressing for mixed greens with chopped pecans, blueberries, and chives. My dad, who loved his sweets, would have a dessert of vanilla ice cream doused in Grade A maple syrup as often as my mother would let him. And Easter-time Hot Cross Buns weren’t complete unless accompanied by a dipping pool of maple syrup.

I don’t go through the sweet stuff at the same volume my dad did, so I won’t be picking up a case of cans at the syrup festival. But I’ll be the woman in the crowd of thousands, loudly praising the virtues of C grade, to whomever will lend me their ears.

Main photo: Laurel L. Russworm, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence.

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