For centuries, maple taffy has reigned supreme as a winter delicacy, and for good reason.
Maple taffy, or taffy on snow, is simply (as the name suggests) maple syrup on snow. Originally an aboriginal tradition, the recipe was adopted by French settlers in eastern Canada, particularly around Quebec, and the northeastern United States, where groves of maple trees grow thickest. . The Winter Treat is a simple concoction, though the manufacturing process is actually quite finicky. But really, there is nothing like it.
First, you boil the maple sap you collected by tapping the maple trees, and you need a lot of sap. Maple syrup is made at a ratio of about 40 to one, which means you need 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup. Once you have your sap, you boil it for hours, seeking what maple producer Roland Gagné calls the “magic temperature.”
Gagne made maple syrup with Saint-Pierre-Jolys Museum in the Canadian province of Manitoba, and spent a decade running the sugar shack in Traveler’s Festival, an annual celebration of French-Canadian and Métis culture. Over the years, he’s rolled thousands of servings of maple taffy, and he says you can see when the syrup has started to turn. “You can bring it to a syrupy state, or you can bring it to a harder state where it will form tighter crystals, or you can boil it in candy form,” he says. The trick is to catch the syrup at the right temperature, then cool it down a bit, before pouring the liquid into a snow mould. When you do it right, the syrup clings to the snow, rather than melting through it, and you can roll it up on a spoon or popsicle stick and devour it.
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I first tried maple taffy at the Festival du Voyageur when I was a kid, even though that was before Gagné worked at the sugar shack. It’s a taste that’s hard to forget: hot and cold at the same time, the taffy is bursting with sweetness and earth, an herbal finish that’s made even better by the cold winter air hitting your cheeks. It’s such a simple recipe, but it’s surprisingly good.
It may even bring people from all over the world to the East Coast, ready to brave the elements for a taste of tradition. “Before GPS, I had a long list of routes,” explains Rob Lamothe, owner of Lamothe sugar shack in Burlington, Connecticut. One of the largest candies in the state, Lamothe’s has been in business for over 50 years. He and his wife were all about self-sufficiency, striving to produce as much of their own food as possible. They started by tapping a few trees and then word of mouth took over. People started calling, wanting to buy syrup or take a ride. Soon Lamothe was answering calls from all over the world. “Last year we had someone from Germany,” he says. “They planned their whole trip, they wanted to come to Connecticut.”
For customers who have come a long way, Lamothe has even figured out how to make maple taffy to go, even though hot syrup and snow seem like essential parts of the recipe. Instead, Lamothe prepares taffy on snow and cools it quickly by putting it in the freezer in individual portions for customers to reheat later. It’s a twist on the traditional recipe he learned from his French-Canadian aunt Yvonne. “That’s what memories are made of,” he says.
This sense of tradition is what many sugar shacks try to keep alive today. Outside Montreal, Pierre Faucher directs the Mountain Candy, a sugar shack in operation since 1978. The business is open year-round and welcomes more than 80,000 visitors a year. The sugar factory has even become a Quebec heritage site, where customers can get a glimpse of the past and learn about the history of maple syrup. “When people reconnect with the lifestyle, they really like it,” Faucher says. “Since people have been making maple syrup, they’ve come together and enjoyed the purity of spring. It is a gift of nature.
Even now, as a man in his 60s who is surrounded by maple syrup every day, Faucher says the taste of maple taffy never gets old. He was about five years old when he first tasted the tire on the snow. “I’ll never forget that,” Faucher said. “It was so, so delicious. And I’m 75, and it’s still delicious.
Maple syrup can only be harvested when the weather is ideal, usually between early February and late March. If you’re a maple lover, this is the perfect time of year to head to the local maple grove for a tour and tasting. And just like wine, the region and terroir where the syrup is produced will affect the taste. So pack some wet wipes and take a road trip to try different sugar shacks near you. This pull is worth the detour.