“The first thing you want to check for when you’re buying maple syrup is you’re not buying Maple-flavoured syrup,” says Queenslander Erin Burchill. She would know. A Canadian expat now living in the Sunshine State, Burchill’s experience of maple syrup is, perhaps, a touch more nostalgic than most.
“When I was a kid back in Canada, my grandfather used to tap a tree, using a spigot, which acts like a bit of a funnel so the sap runs out,” she recalls. “He’d hang a tin bucket off it, and leave it there for a day or two. Then, he’d stick it on the fire and boil it down, and you’d get just enough for your pancakes.”
These days, Burchill imports high-quality Canadian maple syrup from a sugar bush collective in Quebec for her company, O Canada. (A sugar bush, by the way, is the name for a Maple Syrup farm). Good quality syrup is still produced in much the same way as during Burchill’s childhood: just as winter is turning to spring, and the thawing sap begins moving in the trees, a spigot is inserted into the trunk. The liquid drains into containers and is reduced to syrup. “It’s fairly intensive,” Burchill admits of the reduction process. “There’s a lot of water in sap, so you need to boil the water off. To make decent-quality maple syrup, you need 40 litres of sap to make a litre of syrup. You need thousands of trees to have a proper operation.”
Standard-issue pancake syrup is by no means the be-all and end-all of maple. There are five gradations of maple syrup, classed by transparency: extra light, light, medium, amber and dark. Each grade has a particular flavour, with medium being the super-sweet gear you’re likely to stick on your waffles, while dark is much richer in nutrients and aromatic flavours. “Generally, the dark is made toward the end of the season,” says Burchill. “You’re getting toward the bottom, so all the nutrients are coming out more. It’s really just the maple-y flavour, it’s not super-sweet.”
Exporting the sticky stuff is no small matter; as intimately connected with the Canadian character as maple syrup is, there are some strict guidelines around its production. For instance, while most maple syrup isn’t certified organic, the trees are never sprayed with pesticides. “The sugar bushes have massive hectares of property, and people don’t spray sugar bushes because it’s a wild environment,” says Burchill. “You’re not even allowed to spray fields if they’re on the border of a sugar bush.”
The natural character of maple made Melbourne chocolatier Nikki Hillier a convert to the syrupy business. After health issues prevented her from eating cane sugar, Hillier’s partner, Leo Kats, began making her raw chocolates sweetened with maple. “Originally, it was just chocolate that Leo made for us at home,” says Hillier. Friends dug the chocolates so much the pair began selling them under the name Lief.je. All its chocolates are sweetened with maple and Hillier’s appreciation of the product has since increased exponentially.
“We love that it’s completely pure. It’s the sap from the tree boiled down to a thick syrup. There’s nothing added,” she says. “It’s the perfect balance of flavour with raw cacao, it’s not quite a burned toffee, but a slight caramel note.”
But, even the Canadian moles who have infiltrated Australia urge moderation when it comes to maple syrup. “It’s a treat even in Canada,” Burchill admits. “Maple syrup is expensive because it’s very labour-intensive to make. It’s not like everybody’s having litres and litres of it.”
For Canadian-born chef Patrick Friesen – who says he uses buckets of maple syrup on his maple-and-dark-pepper-cured pork belly when it’s on the menu at Papi Chulo in Manly – the best maple syrup most certainly comes from Canada.
“Some Americans swear that they make the best in Vermont, but they lie,” he smiles. “At home we get it from the next town and they harvest it themselves.”
According Friesen, the best stuff comes in tins, which are hard to come by in Australia. If you do find one, never be fooled by the look of the packaging. “Always read the label and make sure it does come from Canada and that it’s 100 per cent maple syrup, not pancake syrup [corn syrup flavoured with maple].” While grading has changed in recent years, the finest Canadian maple syrup comes from sugar maple, red maple and black maple trees, and is graded as Grade A or Number One if it has a clear and uniform colour, no fermentation and an untainted maple flavour. The Number One grade is further divided into extra light, light and medium. “The grades are about how much it’s reduced,” says Friesen, adding that each grade rates the strength of flavour, with his personal favourite being medium.
“It’s about more than the sweetness, it’s a full-bodied flavour. Like reducing stock; at the halfway point it’s already good, but it gets stronger as you go on.” The different strengths suit different uses, from light waffle topping to dark, sticky pork glaze. So what does he do with it when he’s off the clock? “I fry bacon and when it’s just about done, I pour two tablespoon of syrup into the pan. It’s amazing.”
Try Canadian maple syrup:
In the hot sauce at Miss Katie’s Crab Shack (The Rochester Castle Hotel). The Canadian maple is used to sweeten the spicy blend of bullhorn peppers and chipotle. The buttermilk fried chicken Belgian waffles are served with pure Canadian maple.
202 Johnston Street, Fitzroy
(03) 9419 0166
On the Myrtleford buttermilk pancakes with rosewater rhubarb, pistachio praline, gingerbread spices and vanilla mascarpone at Crabapple Kitchen.
659 Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn
(03) 9078 5492
Find Canadian maple syrup at:
Prahran Market, Elizabeth Street, South Yarra
(03) 9827 9047
Discover more about Connoisseur Canadian Maple with Peanut Butter at connoisseuricecream.com.au.