The Sugar Shack/Cabane à Sucre is a Quebec tradition beloved by many. Let me tell you a little about it..
Most sugar shacks are chaotic affairs unless you go to a private shack. Even then, the sugar shack is about celebrations, families and about 15 different maple syrup-laden dishes so even private family sugar shacks can be pretty chaotic. Think toddlers high on sugar, a constant stream of food and about a million people going here and there.
Tip: Be prepared for chaos and have patience.
Sugar shacks take place out of town, unless you attend an urban sugar shack. The whole purpose is to celebrate the arrival of the maple syrup out in the woods where the maple syrup is collected. This means this is usually the middle of nowhere. Get directions, double check, and expect at least one person to arrive an hour late or one car to get stuck in the mud trying to do a u-turn on a muddy country lane.
Tip: Make sure you have directions and someone who can read them.
There’s food.. and lots of it. Despite what everyone says, I find the food tends to be pretty similar no matter where I head. The meal starts off with pork rinds, followed by pea soup, ham, sausages, meatballs, omlette, pickles, and beans. This is followed by sugar pie, pancakes and maple syrup doughnuts. You can even get eggs cooked in maple syrup.
Tip: Because there are so many people and so many dishes service is almost inevitably erratic. Don’t fill up on pork rinds while you wait. They are salty as hell and will set the rest of the meal off.
Tip: Add maple syrup to everything. Because, you are at a sugar shack after all.
Sugar shacks take place during the spring which in Montreal usually means mud. It can also mean warm temperatures or freezing cold winds. Check the weather before you go and make sure you have the appropriate clothing. No matter what wear boots. Rain boots are preferable.
Tip: Don’t wear your best clothes – you’ll inevitably get mud on them somewhere.
Sugar shacks are seasonal affairs which means they are usually boarded up most the year. I’ve never been to a sugar shack where the toilets were warm and inviting.
Tip: Have low expectations around the toilets.
Roaring fires and folksy music are the norm. Both can get annoying.
Tip: Dress in layers in case you are seated next to that roaring fire. Even if you aren’t the mass of humanity means that most shacks are hot inside.
Other things to keep in mind…
Because most shacks are in the woods usually there is a long walk to get to the location. Often sugar shacks have some sort of transport to help get you there like a horse pulling a wagon. If someone in your group has low mobility, check before hand what the proper procedure is.
I’ve never been in a sugar shack which had a quick turn around. Because there are so many courses you usually end up waiting for something. Don’t expect to get in and out. Besides, that’s not what it’s really about. Enjoy the celebration, the food, the kids, the music and the chaos.
Many sugar shacks often have other attractions for kids like animals. If this is something important to you, check before hand. Some have serious boozing and disco lights in the evening. Again, if this is, or isn’t, what you are after, check.
These photos are from our visit the Handfield Inn Sugar Shack.
(Please note that the sugar shack is NOT at the Handfield Inn and there are special instructions to get to the sugar shack which is some distance from the Inn.)
ps My visit to a family sugar shack.