CHEF’S TABLE: Sweets are happening at the sugar shack (6 photos)

“I just can’t imagine a spring in Ontario without this pure liquid gold. It’s like a gift from Mother Nature to apologize for the long harsh winter,” says a food columnist

One of the things that always helps me get through the exhausting cold and gloomy weather of this time of year is thinking about that sweet blood of Canadian life: maple syrup.

I simply cannot imagine a spring in Ontario without this pure liquid gold. It’s like a gift from Mother Nature meant to apologize for the long harsh winter and tease a timid promise of warmer days to come.

I have many fond memories of my childhood in the sugar bush on my grandparents’ farm in Muskoka. My grandfather Earl and my grandmother Hedi Linn had about 150 tapped trees at the height of the logging. I remember their humble beginning with just a few tree-lined paths and a small tarp-covered pole structure and a large pot boiling over the fire.

As the Linn Sugar Bush grew, so did the crowds of family, friends and locals stopping off the snowmobile trail. Everyone seemed more than happy to pull a bucket or two and enjoy a little local gab, maybe a snack and some mixed “hot toddy” straight out of the evaporator bin . For a young child, the sense of community and the soothing serenity of the woods in early spring left lasting impressions.

During our March break, all the grandchildren would have had the chance to stay on the farm and help out at the sugar mill. The best part was our salary. We each had our own bottle of the season’s batch. Considering it takes about 40 gallons of sap to make a single gallon of maple syrup, each bottle was an impressive amount of time and energy to produce. Oh, but that sweet taste! No wonder I became a maple syrup purist. Only the real stuff for me please, and the darker the better.

In the kitchen, pure maple syrup is an outstanding ingredient. It has a wide variety of applications and is a great addition to any recipe that needs a little sweetness. Light, dark, granulated maple sugar or even fresh sap all have great potential to inspire culinary greatness.

Here in Simcoe County we have a long history of maple production and many great local producers.

Maple syrup production is a growing agribusiness with excellent growth potential not only for supply production, but also as a culinary tourism product.

Williams Farm is one of our local producers. Owned by John and Suzanne Williams, the sugar shack is operated by John with the help of his family, Kim Kerr, and several local staff.

John was another kid who grew up helping his parents make syrup. His first work experience of 130 taps sparked a passion for maple that led him and his family to get back into syrup making in 2001.

Williams Farm now has 3,400 taps on 55 acres of prime Simcoe County sugar bush, located on the edge of Wye Marsh, just south of Midland.

The Ontario Maple Syrup Producers Association (OMSPA) does a great job of representing, supporting and promoting all things maple in our region. Many member farms and growers will be opening their doors this spring so you can get your own taste of sugar magic.

Simcoe County Sugar Shacks will be open the weekend of April 2 and 3. If Mother Nature plays along, the sap will flow, the fires will burn and the pots will smoke for you and your families to experience. All information and how to find a weekend maple experience can be found with this link: Maple Weekend – Ontario Maple.

As part of our Georgian College hospitality department’s commitment to developing urban agriculture on campus, our team wanted to try their hand at sugar bushing. Luckily for us, it turns out that we actually have several sugar maple trees planted on campus. Our very own Governors Grove along the main entrance has about 12 trees that we were able to tap and harvest last year.

This year we hope to tap a few more trees in other places around the school.

It is truly gratifying as an educator to be able to share this uniquely Canadian experience with our students. There is no better education than being able to experience first hand the process that is so present in our identity as Canadians.

For me, it brings me back to those balmy early spring days working at the sugar shack with my grandma and dad…. and I still get my syrup.

Rachel J. Bradford