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.
How dire is the situation for sugar shacks?
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.
How does Ma cabane à la maison work?
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.
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.