PLESSISVILLE, Canada — Springtime means sugar time in the vast maple forests of southern Quebec Province. It's party time, too, for when the long Canadian winter has finally run its course and the sap starts flowing in the trees, the table is set for the sweetest celebrations this side of the Big Rock Candy Mountain.
"Sugaring off," as this annual rite of spring is called, draws thousands of sweet-toothed visitors to the province's 143 sugarbush farms to witness a miracle of nature and taste the bounties of its maple syrup, taffy and sugar in the rollicking ambiance of woodland cabin parties and elaborate regional festivals.
Quebec's richest maple country centers on the historic rolling hills in the Beauce and Bois-Franc districts on the southern shore of the St. Lawrence River about 130 miles northeast of Montreal. It's 40 miles north of the Vermont border and directly across the river from romantic Quebec City.
Plessisville claims to be the world capital of maple production, and attracts as many as 100,000 visitors to its weeklong festival in middle or late April. The program always includes a huge night parade, street dancing, live theater, fireworks, craft and antique sales, traditional French-Canadian cuisine and, of course, all the maple goodies you can eat.
The six-county Pays de l'Erable (Maple Country) embraces some of the best preserved architectural history in the province. Many villages date to the early 17th Century when the first French colonists arrived. Their past is scrupulously maintained in many old churches, houses, farmsteads and covered bridges . . . and in the sweet maple legacy bequeathed by the Indians almost four centuries ago.
But many other maple groves are scattered throughout the province, including the sky country in the Laurentian Mountains north of Montreal and Quebec City, and the south-shore Eastern Townships, where sugar parties meld happily with the warm pleasures of spring skiing.
This spring several towns and farms will host maple festivals. But because it's impossible to predict when the sap will start running, precise dates cannot be set far in advance.
Depending on the weather, the sugar season usually runs from about March 20 to late April, the period of sub-freezing nights and above-freezing days that the Indians called the "maple moon." This freeze-thaw alternation generates a flow of sap that is tapped and collected, then boiled into syrup, taffy or sugar.
It is applied in many inventive ways in products eaten either on their own or combined with basic country cooking.
One popular type of get-together is the afternoon rendezvous for taffy making at a timberland sugar cabin, with its own outback boiler house. Maple sap is boiled past the syrup stage into more gelatinous taffy, which is poured hot onto trays of clean snow. The taffy is allowed to thicken a bit more, then wound onto sticks into a maple lollipop.
For more substantial maple cookery, the evening may feature a country supper of pancakes, omelet, ham, Canadian bacon (which Canadians call peameal or back bacon) and baked beans, all prepared in or served with syrup.
The culinary piece de resistance , though, is the full-course dinner of maple haute cuisine , with anything not cooked in syrup doused in it when served.
For an aperitif, the maple initiate might try a banana-maple daiquiri, or a hot buttered rum using maple syrup in place of honey or sugar. Or for the kids, a chilled, blender-mixed drink combining syrup, salt, milk and vanilla ice cream.
A super-luxe all-maple dinner might begin with an egg poached in boiling syrup, then a green salad dressed with maple syrup vinaigrette.
Crescendoing to the main course, we're presented with maple-basted ham, chicken, pork or lamb, garnished with baked beans in syrup, maple-glazed carrots and syrup-topped oreilles de crisse , puffy fried fatback.
What to drink with all this is anyone's choice. Some syrup gourmets suggest extra-sweet wine to harmonize with the sweetness of the food. Others advise offsetting the sweetness with milk, black coffee or clear tea. Many, though, wash it down with that good old Canadian staple, beer.
Dessert presents another nectareous dilemma, with selections of maple mousse, custard, maple meringue apples, maple chiffon or sugar pies, and all description of maple cakes and cookies.
If that's not a strong enough sugar fix, you might want a digestive of maple liqueur with after-dinner coffee. But if it all sounds too much, all cabins offer many non-maple dishes for the faint of heart and tooth. They include Quebecois specialties such as split pea soup, pig's feet stew and tourtiere , a spicy meat pie of ground beef and pork.