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The Sugar Shack
A filling dinner and fascinating experience
When my wife and I visited Montreal earlier this year, in late spring, one thing we wanted to do was visit a “sugar shack.” These are the mostly small, family-owned facilities where maple syrup is produced, several of which are within easy driving distance of Montreal.
During the maple sap harvesting/boiling season, generally late winter to early spring, there’s a tradition of having a big, maple-syrup-accented meal—kind of a harvest festival, but in what I’d consider winter weather. We had missed the actual harvest season, but a couple of these places now operate year-round, offering the classic sugar shack meal to tourists while also actually making maple syrup.
We’d booked a reservation at one of these places about 35-40 minutes from our hotel in Montreal. I’d booked it two or three weeks ahead as I was worried we wouldn’t get a table. Who knows how many people want to try this neat regional experience?
Well, the day came, and we mapped the place from somewhere in the city that afternoon. Almost two hours away! The rush hour traffic was very bad, which, I guess, I should have foreseen. We debated whether or not to cancel the reservation, but I decided after waiting all this time I wasn’t going to let an extra hour in the car stop me.
So we left very early, sat in typical congested expressway gridlock, and then, finally, found ourselves in the countryside. The place was on a small country road, without a lot of signage. We could have been out in western Virginia. We reached the place, it was very charming: a bunch of rustic buildings situated in a clearing, surrounded by a massive maple forest.
There was a welcoming fire burning in a pit outside, with a pot above (maybe just for show). I’ve never seen a maple forest before. No wonder this is where so much maple syrup comes from. Every last tree was a maple!
I wasn’t sure where to park, so I stopped the car outside the main building and went in. Nobody. No employees, that is. The place was hopping: live music, loud conversation, a big dining-hall style room full of people. It took about five minutes for somebody who worked there to come to the front. “Hi, we have a reservation for dinner, where, uh, should I go?”
“Oh, you’re the reservation for two. This big party will be clearing out soon. You can just park out front and come have a little wine tasting.”
“The reservation for two?” I said.
“You’re the only ones.”
Now this isn’t the first time I’ve had the only booking somewhere. Back in 2020, when I took an overnight road trip on Route 11 in Virginia, I happened to be the only person staying at my motel. “You must be Addison,” said the lady at the desk when I came to check in. “How do you know?” I replied. “I’m not the only person staying tonight, am I?” “Actually you are,” she answered. That was interesting.
Anyway, we went in, and the owner gave us a taste of a Canadian semi-sweet wine and explained the place to us. He had to go, but someone else, if I recall correctly his son, was going to take care of our dinner and show us the on-site store later. It was a big place, but a real family-owned business.
The other fellow showed us to a table and put on some music—the same basic music the live band had been playing, French-Canadian rigodon. Very lively but also atmospheric stuff. And then he went to go get our food.
So we had the whole big place to ourselves, low music playing on a speaker, a gas fireplace going, just a strange and wonderful experience. While we waited for the food to come out, I wandered around, took some pictures, and looked at the objects on display—old stoves, pots, furniture.
The food was simple and satisfying. Snobbery won’t do you much good here. Was it the best split pea soup ever? The best bacon? Well, of course not. But that isn’t the point. It was delicious. Interestingly, the meal was basically American diner fare—sausage, bacon, ham, potatoes. Heavy, hearty food, all made better with a drizzle (or more) of maple syrup, which sat in a bottle on the table like olive oil in an Italian restaurant. There were some more unique items too: pickles, and some kind of savory pie. I wonder if there’s any actual historical relation between the American diner menu and this meal?
After the meal, it was time for maple taffy: maple syrup boiled extra long and poured on shaved ice, then eaten sort of like a lollipop. Do you want another one? Yes. Of course. We chatted about the history of the establishment—decades old, still making its own maple syrup, more a cultural showcase than a tourist trap—and about Montreal, which felt so far away out here.
After the taffy, our host closed up the dining hall and took us over to the store, where we could, and did, buy some of the maple syrup made on site. As he shut off the lights, I just wandered around a little bit more, and took this picture.
It almost felt like I was in someone’s home. When I booked this, I had expected basically a crowded, touristy place with a little local character, maybe something like the old family-style restaurants in Amish Country. I did not expect to feel like I was invited to someone’s house. It was really one of those experiences you remember.
I’ve never been more happy to sit in a traffic jam.
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