Sunny days and cold, freezing nights. 'Tis the season of the drip-drip-drip of sap into buckets, of pancakes with fresh syrup and of sugar-on-snow.
Yet relegating maple syrup to breakfast and dessert is doing it a great disservice, as the sugar-mad Québécois know. There, the stuff makes its way into every course, savory or otherwise.
While reporting last week's story on "black market maple," I hit up Québec's Eastern Townships — specifically, Knowlton, a sleepy village on Lac Brome about a 20-minute drive north of the Vermont border. Right in the center of town is Auberge Knowlton, which has been an inn in some form or another for over a century. Its bottom floor is given over to Le Relais Restaurant Bistro, a comfy, unpretentious restaurant with high-backed colonial chairs, packets of mayonnaise on the tables and a dinner menu devoted to maple — at least on Saturday nights during sugaring season.
Unlike the cooks at Québec sugar shacks where plates of bacon and eggs are slathered in maple syrup, Le Relais chef Paul Lalande has a light hand with the stuff. He barely drizzles it into a peppery split-pea soup, so that it adds weight and sweetness but doesn't dominate; he laces the broth for his mussels with syrup, then spikes it with chipotle for a spicy-sugary taste.
Maple syrup makes another appearance in the marinade for flank steak, where its vanilla-like sweetness becomes a background note to the charred but juicy meat. And, since Lac Brome is famous for its duck, the kitchen presents a succulent, rosy-pink duck breast that's seared, sliced and fanned over maple-caramelized onions.
When we asked our server where the syrup for the meal came from, she said, "Oh, from a local bush" and waved her hand in the direction of a family homestead in the neighborhood. Even when it's not maple season, most of the food at Le Relais is local, anyway; layering in seasonal ingredients is a reflex in this kitchen.
Le Relais' three-course, all-maple dinner menu runs for two more weeks: tomorrow night and next Saturday, April 6. During the week, you'll find maple specials sprinkled throughout the menu. It's worth the drive.
Le Relais, 286 Chemin Knowlton, Knowlton, Qc. 450-242-2232. www.aubergeknowlton.ca