You might say Simon Bernard has maple syrup in his veins. For more than 30 years, the owner of La p'tite cabane d'la côte, a sugar shack in Mirabel, has harvested the sweet sap of over 3,500 maple trees to produce delicious maple products as well as crispy oreilles de crisse, old-fashioned pea soup, and mountains of fèves au lard, not to mention many evenings of fun.
But lately, Quebec’s sweetest tradition has fallen on sour times.
How has the pandemic affected Quebec's sugar shacks?
Efforts to stem the coronavirus have thrown things into complete disarray for Quebec’s historic sugar shacks, stoking fears for their survival, and threatening an important cultural tradition.
"The problem is with our reception halls," said Bernard. "All our events have been cancelled and we haven’t had any business for over a year."
"It’s really important to encourage sugar shacks across the province this year to give those that are left a chance to survive."
Lots of work goes into making maple syrup (with the tree tapping and all) but Bernard was forced to downsize his workforce from 70 to 10 this season when revenue dried up abruptly at La p'tite cabane d'la côte, he said.
"We’re not many and we’re working very hard."
To survive, he’s joined a collection of almost 70 sugar shacks trying to keep afloat with a new initiative called Ma cabane à la maison.
The Ma cabane à la maison initiative is a lifeline, said Bernard.
"I’m really happy about this arrangement," he said.
"The orders have been good so far and that’s really important because this is the second year we’ve been closed and we need to make some sales. For all the sugar shacks, if we’re to stay open, it’s really important to support us this year."
The start of the pandemic in Quebec coincided with last year’s sugaring-off season, which was very bad for the industry, he said.
As a result, the sugar shacks in Quebec that practice agritourism are on the verge of bankruptcy, and 75% of them "could disappear forever," explained Stéphanie Laurin, president of the Association des salles de réception et érablières du Québec (ASEQC), in a news release.
The concept is simple. Just head online and select a sugar shack to prepare a meal that is boxed up, sent to your address, and deposited at your door.
You can also pick up the meal kit straight from the sugar shack, or from participating Metro grocery stores.
Every sugar shack has its own menu of reheatable or ready-to-cook dishes featuring particular specialties.
At La p'tite cabane d'la côte, the signature dish is mini tourtières.
"No other cabane makes a meat pie like that," said Bernard, in addition to grands-pères dans le sirop, a pot of taffy, and other treats.
And if you’re not down for a pork-heavy meal there are vegetarian, vegan, pork-free, and gluten-free offerings available.
Can Quebecers still get the sugar shack experience?
Each box comes with a special link to an "old-time jamboree" featuring Daniel Boucher, 2Frères, Yves Lambert, and Guylaine Tanguay to turn your evening into a digital hoedown.
And, though his reception hall is closed to diners, visitors can still take part in a number of traditional activities at the cabane, said Bernard, including horse-drawn sleigh rides March 2, 4, 6 and 7, a skating rink, hiking, bonfires, a petting zoo, and the all-important tire d'erable.
"We’re trying to offer people the complete service as it was before COVID," he said. "Come see us. We’re here. It’s worth the trip."
Before you get going, check our Responsible Travel Guide so you can be informed, be safe, be smart, and most of all, be respectful on your trip.
La Maison Onyx is a pop-up that will run between July and October, giving marginalized chefs a stage to showcase their culinary expertise. Up first is Saint-Henri's Tropikàl Restobar, a Caribbean and Afro-Latin restaurant, which will be there from July 7 to July 27.
Tropikàl will be followed by Maquis Yasolo, an Afro-Québécoise restaurant in Saint-Henri. Later, MasterChef Canada’s Marissa Leon-John of Elle Jay’s Private Dining and Afro-Vegan chef Evy Mendes of Cantine Toca Toca will be serving up delicious eats.
La Maison Onyx is an initiative by DESTA Food, a Black youth network and non-profit business incubator for Black businesses.
According to a DESTA Food statement, La Maison Onyx will feature street food-style menus using local Quebec products, chef-led market tours at Jean-Talon Market, and on-site food demonstrations.
More chefs and Montreal restaurants will be announced in the coming weeks and months.
This article's cover photo was used for illustrative purposes only.
"These were not cute storybook Eric Carle's 'hungry caterpillar' but rather something out of a horror movie," she said. "One or two would be sweet but to see each tree coated with these critters made us uneasy."
Experts told MTL Blog the bugs are most likely LDD moth (Lymantria dispar dispar) caterpillars, an invasive species that has been defoliating trees and pooping everywhere across Quebec, Ontario and the northeastern United States this year.
The moths, commonly known as "gypsy moths," were first brought to North America in 1869 by French artist Étienne Trouvelot, according to an online resource from the University of Wisconsin.
Without "many natural enemies," the moths were able to expand beyond Trouvelot's suburban Boston backyard to become "one of the most important insect pests of forest and shade trees in the eastern United States," the university explains.
McGill university insect pathologist Dr. Gary Dunphy told MTL Blog that, due to the natural ebb and flow of the population, LDD moth outbreaks occur every seven to 10 years.
They like trees such as oak, white pine, white spruce and birch, according to a fact sheet from the Invasive Species Centre.
Also, the caterpillars' tiny bodies are covered in hairs, called setae, which can cause a rash "somewhat like poison ivy," in some people, though it can be treated with antihistamines and over-the-counter medication, said Dunphy.
"The setae or hairs of the insets may elicit rashes several months after the larvae are gone, the hairs being entrapped in tree bark," he said.
They also poop everywhere and their feces, known as frass, makes an audible sound as it falls like rain, covering outdoor furniture, clothes and hair.
Like all LDD moth outbreaks, this year's problem will take care of itself as fungal and viral infections reduce their population, entomologist Gard Otis told MTL Blog.
"But we don't know what next year will bring," he said. "We don't know if the virus is going to sweep through this year and kill them. Or if we're going to have another high number next year before the virus takes them down."
Some communities spray a bacterial insecticide called BTK to control the pests, which "though totally harmless to your pets, to your children, and to yourself," can harm the food chain as it kills all moth and butterfly species.
"That's the insects that provide all the food for your little baby birds," said Otis. "Most of the songbirds here are feeding their young with caterpillars. So, what are they going to feed on?"
He said a more environmentally-friendly defence involves wrapping a burlap sack around the trunk of any tree in need of protection.
"What happens is the caterpillars crawl down out of the tree and rest on the trunk in the daytime. And they like to hide so they hide in the burlap and then you just shake them off into soapy water and that kills him," said Otis.
"So, if you have a few trees that you're worried about, you could do that and cut the infestation back to the point where it's not going to seriously harm them."
As for the caterpillars' long-term effect on the trees, themselves, Otis suggested that repeated visits can cause some damage.
"You have too many gypsy moths for too many years, a few trees will die, but most of them will bounce back."
"Bill 96 is clear. Anglophones represent 8% in Quebec and they will get 8% of the new places in the future," said Premier Legault.
"We freeze the number of places at the actual level and then the growth is 8% of the new places every year."
In Montreal, French-language CEGEPs will be able to count on an increase of 6,419 spots, compared to 2019. However, enrolment in English CEGEPs will be frozen at 2019 levels to "stabilize growth" over the next decade.
Legault said enrolment at English-language CEGEPs can still grow year over year compared to the 2019 level at which it's frozen, but only by 8% of the total number of new spots at all CEGEPs.
With the new freeze, total enrolment in English-language CEGEPs will represent less than 17.5% of the province's projected enrolment in the Quebec school system as a whole, which is in line with Bill 96's proposals regarding enrolment caps.
Everyone loves churros — what could be bad about fried choux pastry dough covered in cinnamon sugar and sometimes stuffed with caramel or chocolate? If you're getting hungry just thinking about the popular Latin American treat, then mark your calendar because you now officially have plans at Churros Montreal on Saturday.
To celebrate its 22nd anniversary of operation, Churros Montreal will be selling churros for $1 on June 19.