Last Updated on December 18, 2023 by Pamela MacNaughtan
Quebec sugar shacks bring to mind red and white gingham tablecloths, wrought iron wood stoves, bearded men in red and black lumberjack plaid jackets, and lively folk music. The cabin is rustic, there’s likely snow outside, and the tables are laden with Québécois comfort foods doused with maple syrup.
Since snow is usually on the ground during the sugaring off season, I’m going to say that sugar shacks are one of the best things to do in Quebec in winter. It’s one of the best Québécois cultural experiences. Plus, it’s a celebration of all things maple, which is one of Quebec’s biggest exports. In fact, Quebec produces over 70% of the world’s maple syrup.
A little history…
While French colonizers may have been the ones to make maple syrup as we know it today, they would not have done so without skills they learned from First Nationals and Indigenous peoples. For thousands of years, the First Nations and Indigenous peoples have utilized maple sugar tree bark and sap, making crystalized sugar. Maple sap was considered to be energizing and nutritious.
When Jacques Cartier showed up in the 16th century, he was introduced to maple sap by Indigenous leaders, and by the 1700s, maple sugar was all the rage in France. The French colonizers learned how to tap the maple trees from local Indigenous peoples, and eventually, the colonizers started using augers to drill holes into the trees.
In 1850, the first sugar shacks came into use and by 1868, Quebecers were having maple sugar parties to usher in the sugaring off-season each spring (usually in March). By the 20th century, there were crackling fires and music played on fiddles and with spoons, and maple syrup served with fluffy baked omelettes, baked beans, meat pies, and more.
Sucreries vs Cabanes
Sugar shacks come in different sizes. Typically, a sucrerie is quite large, often with multiple buildings. The dining halls are just that, grand halls with seating for hundreds of people. They are often frequented by tour groups and buses of school children on spring trips. Traditional French-Canadian music is often played, and dancing is generally encouraged.
Cabanes à sucre is usually small, often the size of a barn or cabin. Communal tables can be found here, too, but seating usually hovers around 50 to 150 people. Local musicians play French-Canadian folk music on fiddles, acoustic guitars, and wooden spoons, and there is usually an old wood stove nearby. They’re family-owned and operated, and the food is generally made with family recipes passed from one generation to the next.
Traditional foods in a Quebec sugar shack
There are a handful of traditional Québécois dishes on every sugar shack menu. Sometimes they are prepared the old-fashioned way, keeping in line with family traditions. Other times, these traditional dishes are given a gourmet touch. Here are the traditional Québécois foods you’ll find on sugar shack menus.
A French Canadian meat pie, tourtière is traditionally served on Christmas Eve. It’s a pie made with beef and pork mince, cubed or mashed potatoes, and spices like savoury, nutmeg, clove, and allspice. The dough is simple: flour, salt, cold lard, and water. When served, be sure to drizzle with maple syrup before digging in.
Tourtière du Lac-Saint-Jean is more hearty. These meat pies are more like meat pot pies topped with pastry. It’s a traditional wintertime dish in the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region of Quebec and is often prepared in a round dutch oven. Instead of mince, the filling is made with cubed beef or venison, veal, and pork. Sometimes, salted pork is added. Spices like thyme, savoury, and bay leaves are used, and cubed potatoes are an essential part, too.
It’s unlikely to find Tourtière du Lac-Saint-Jean on sugar shack menus, but you can try making it yourself. I love the recipe in Made in Quebec by Julian Armstrong. While I covet my tourtière dish, traditional tourtière can be made in a large deep-dish pie plate.
This delightful sugar shack snack is made with salted pork fatback which is either pan-fried or deep-fried. They are believed to have originated at a lumber camp in the Mauricie region. As to the name, well, some say they look like a cauliflower ear once they’re fried, and a cook cracked a joke about Christ’s ears. I have to wonder if it’s partially due to swear words in Quebec, which have religious connotations. Maybe someone said, “Christ’s ears, these are delicious”. Okay, that is not likely the case, but it’s fun to imagine.
French Canadian pea soup is love, in a bowl, especially on a crispy winter day! The soup is usually made with yellow peas, salted pork or a ham hock, finely diced onions and carrots, and seasoned with parsley, celery leaves, and savoury. Most families have their own recipes. The broth can be thick or thin, and some remove the salted pork or ham before serving. Personally, I love a thicker broth and a little pork or ham in my pea soup. It reminds me of my dad, who loved buying Habitant’s canned pea soup. Clearly, the pea soup served in a sugar shack is much better. If you want to try making it at home, Quebec chef, Ricardo, has this tasty recipe.
Baked beans are another cabane à sucre tradition, and quite honestly, a delicious breakfast side dish throughout the year. Some believe that this traditional Québécois food was inspired by Boston baked beans. The beans are slow-cooked with either molasses or maple syrup. The maple syrup version is superior (ha!). The best ones have bits of salted pork, and drizzling them with maple syrup before eating is a must.
Omelettes served at a sugar shack are not the thin omelettes you eat at home. These traditional omelettes are large and fluffy, often cooked in a cast iron pot or a 9×13 pan and cut into squares before serving. It looks a lot like a soufflé and is made with flour, baking soda, eggs, and milk. This recipe is in French, but it’s simple and you can translate it using a translation app.
Another traditional breakfast dish in Quebec, cretons sometimes make an appearance on sugar shack menus. Basically, it’s a spread made with ground pork, onions, and spices. It often looks a bit fatty and similar to rillettes (which are basically meat, salt, and fat that’s slow-cooked). Spread onto toast with butter or a crouton. It’s also good as a side, sans bread.
Tarte au sucre (sugar pie) is a dessert from Northern France and Belgium made with brown sugar. The recipe probably travelled to Canada with settlers to New France, and as brown sugar had to be imported, it’s believed that maple sugar was used instead, giving birth to tarte au sirop d’érable. The maple sugar filling is thick and creamy, and sweet enough to offset all of the meat eaten during your meal.
It’s pronounced t-err. Maple taffy is a wintertime treat that started at sugar shacks but is now a staple during winter festivals and events as well. Maple syrup is boiled, then poured in strips over snow, and rolled with a popsicle stick. It’s light and tasty, and the perfect treat to end your sugar shack experience.
In English, they are often called Maple Syrup Grandfathers. Prepared by French Canadians in logging camps, Grand-Pères are soft dumplings that are cooked in maple syrup. The dumplings are made with flour, baking powder, sugar, butter, and milk. Some think they’re named Grandfathers because the dumplings are soft and easy to eat, some claim it’s because old men were generally put in charge of moving maple around the boilers.
Either way, these dumplings are dense and filling and can be quite tasty. They are not on all sugar shack menus, so if you see them, try them!
Some of the other foods you may find on a sugar shack menu are maple-glazed ham, sausages, red or green fruit ketchup (tomatoes, plums, onion, pear, etc.), pickled beets, and crêpes.
sugar shack music
Music is an essential part of any Quebec cabane à sucre experience. I love a place that goes the old-fashioned route, with musicians playing traditional instruments like fiddles, wooden spoons, accordions, and harmonicas. The melodic sounds of rigodon, and French Canadian folk music, fill the room and seep into your soul.
Making music with handmade violins was popular in settlements and communities, but rigodon, as we know it today, came about in the 1920s, and has French, English, and Irish influences. Popular rigodon artists include La Famille Soucy, Jean Carignan, De Temps Antan, La Bottine Souriante, and Yves Lambert. This playlist on Spotify is quite impressive and has 12 hours of rigodon music (it’s… a lot, but it’s fun).
Tapping your feet to the music is fun, but if you have a chance to join some of the square dancing, do it! It’s all part of the Quebec sugar shack culture.
tasty quebec sugar shacks
There are quite a few cabanes à sucre spread throughout the province of Quebec, from grand halls to small family barns and cabins. Here are some of the best Quebec sugar shacks to dive into – big and small.
More commonly known as CabanePDC, it is one of the most well-known and desired sugar shack experiences in Quebec. Chef Martin Picard is renowned for his rich over-the-top cuisine, and his restaurant in Montreal is almost always sold out. The same can be said of his cabane à sucre near Mirabel. In fact, the dining room is already sold out for the 2023 season. So, if you’re looking forward to 2024, make a note in your calendar to check their website regularly after November. If you’re in Quebec, it is possible to order a sugar shack box (94 CAD) for 2 people. They have drop points throughout Quebec.
All of the cool people go to Kamarouska, or it feels that way. There is a good reason and Érablière Nathalie Lemieux is one of those reasons. The maple grove is open to the public in March and April, and the tire is available for 5 CAD. The menu includes cheddar maple sausages, tourtière, cretons, baked beans, crêpes, bacon, and herbed potatoes. Meals are 40 CAD.
This idyllic cabane à sucre in Mirabel has been owned and operated by the Bernard family since 1989. Dine inside a worn wooden barn with snowy maple grove views. The menu features smoked ham, mini pork and veal pies, buckwheat pancakes, pea soup, roasted potatoes, grands-pères au sirop d’érable, and more. There are sleigh rides on the weekends, and walking through the mini farm and maple grove is possible anytime. Saturday nights are the best time as they have various singers.
In Saint-Augustin-de-Desmaures, just west of Quebec City, Érablière le Chemin du Roy is a rustic sugar shack with homemade Québécois comfort food, traditional folk music, and plenty of maple syrup to go around. The sugar shack was built in 1925, and bought by Guy Lafleur in 1989 (yes, the hockey player!). It was sold two years later and its life as a public sugar shack began. Their sugaring off season is March 2nd to April 30th, and they’re open for lunch, and dinner. The menu has all of the traditional goodies: pea soup, maple ham, baked omelette, tourtière, etc. The cost is 39.14 CAD.
La Cabane à Tuque is one of the more unique sugar shacks in Quebec, as it serves organic vegetarian and vegan food. It’s a small family-run sugar shack, and the food is made with organic ingredients from local producers. Their maple sap is harvested the old way, with spouts and wooden buckets, and it’s possible to strap on some snowshoes and help collect the sap. The menu has dishes like millet vegetable pie, pea soup, omelette style tempeh, sauerkraut, pouding chômeur, etc. The cost is around 60 CAD.
The dining hall at Domaine de l’Artisan is large, with communal tables covered with green and white gingham tablecloths and comfy plastic chairs. It’s located in the Eastern Townships, near Brigham. While the sugar shack dining room is closed for 2023, they do have gourmet sugar shack boxes available for 34.95 CAD per person (min of 2 people), or you can create your own and order items individually. Sugar Shack meals are 26 CAD.
In Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean, Érablière au Sucre d’Or has been family-owned and operated since 1965. The sugar shack seats up to 175 people, and they serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner on the weekends in March and April. All of the traditional favourites are here and usually served in an all-you-can-eat style.
On Île d’Orléans, not far from my favourite casse-croûte, is Relais des Pins, a sugar shack that has been serving up traditional maple-inspired food for three generations. The dining hall is large, with enough space for 300 people, and they offer an all-you-can-eat menu of classics like oreilles de crisse, tourtière, sausages, pancakes, baked beans, etc. Vegetarian meals are possible, but they need 24 hours notice. Lunch or dinner during the week is 45 CAD. On Saturdays and Sundays, it’s 50 CAD.
This family-run sugar shack in Saint-Nicolas opened its doors in 1984. The dining hall is large, with red and white gingham adorned tables and industrial plywood school chairs. The menu has all of the classics covered above, and anything gluten-free is clearly marked. Vegetarian dishes are possible, with 48 hours’ notice. There is traditional music with every meal, however, the shows on Saturday nights are particularly good. There is a mini farm and walking trails outside, and they have an impressive maple boutique. Sugar shack meals are 36.75 CAD during the week and 41.75 CAD on Saturdays and Sundays.
Located on Île d’Orléans, a short drive from Quebec City, La Sucrerie Blouin’s sugaring off-season is from March 2nd to April 29th. The dining hall is large with wood panel walls and big windows offering views of the Saint-Lawrence River, as well as the maple grove. The sugar shack menu includes pea soup, maple baked beans, tourtière, oreilles de crisse, meatball stew, cretons, and more. Visit during the week for 46 CAD or on weekends for 52 CAD.
an urban sugar shack experience
In Quebec City, it’s possible to have a sugar shack experience year-round at La Buche. The restaurant is n rue Saint-Louis in Old Quebec, a short walk from Château Frontenac and Hôtel Nomad. The restaurant has two dining rooms, one with picnic tables and the other with two and four tops. In summer, there is a terrace in the back.
The menu is filled with Quebec comfort foods, often with a gourmet twist. Breakfast is often served on metal canteen trays, and quite filling. Baskets of oreilles de crisse are always a good way to start your meal. Pouding Chômeur is a must, and if you’re not afraid of heart failure, order the one with bacon and foie gras – it’s insanely decadent.
get merry with maple
Sugaring off takes place in March and April, which is when Quebec sugar shacks are open for meals and music, but you can buy maple products year-round. Here are some of my favourites in and around Quebec City.
Maple Dulce de leche – This is a creation by Martin Picard of Au Pied de Cochon. You can find it at Le Grand Marche, and some épiceries in the city. Try La Place or Épicerie Européenne.
Sortilège – It’s maple whisky and quite good! Take a shot at a local pub (L’Oncle Antoine usually has a pint and Sortilège special), or pick up a bottle from SAQ and take home as a souvenir.
Tarte au sucre – Comptoir boréal on Côte du Palais in Old Quebec makes. avery good tarte au sucre. I highly recommend buying one to eat immediately, and another for a late-night snack.
Black maple syrup – Confiturerie Tigidou on Île d’Orléans makes a fabulous black maple syrup. You can order it online or visit them on the island. They also have a stand inside Le Grand Marché.
La Petit Cabane à Sucre – This is a small maple boutique located in Petit-Champlain. You’ll find maple syrup, cornets, sugar, fudge, and more.
There is also maple yogurt by Liberté at the grocery stores, and maple cookies, too. Sometimes they have cornettes, which are tiny cones filled with maple sugar. While you can buy maple syrup in the grocery store, buy directly from the producers. Some sell their products online, while others have boutiques on-site that you can visit.