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Muskoka—Deep in the heart of Ontario’s maple syrup country, we wrap ourselves in lumberjack fleece blankets and join Bill Statten and his horse Eddie for a wagon ride through the forest. If only there had been more snow, we could have taken a sleigh ride, but alas the spring temperatures are rising and the sap is running so the snow is melting.
The muddy conditions are less than ideal for a wagon ride but Statten takes us for a quick morning whirl through the 95-acre property, chatting away about an archaic law on the books that says sleigh horses must wear bells, the oldest generation’s delight in being transported back to childhood on these rides, and how he and his wife Cathy Foyston host marriage proposal rides.
I’ve come to Back of Beyond Equine Centre on the Muskoka Maple Trail with my 10-year-old daughter Hazel, who got to meet all 19 horses (mostly rescued or retired show horses) and brush one named Muffin. All we really need is to see a few maple trees to make the experience make sense, but we’re delighted when Statten ends the ride at a campfire where Foyston has laid out a thermos of hot chocolate, marshmallows and sticks for roasting them, and maple cookies made by a friend.
“We do more of a nostalgic experience,” she allows.
Canada produces most of the world’s maple syrup, and while Quebec is the real powerhouse, Ontario is home to hundreds of syrup makers. I’m surprised to learn it’s just the third year for the Muskoka Maple Trail, a collection of 30-plus maple experiences that launched March 9 and runs to April 20 before the Muskoka Maple Festival happens in Huntsville on April 21. Right now there are sugar bush tours, maple experiences like this wagon ride, maple-inspired dining, maple beer spots and maple goodies to be had.
I pull Hazel out of school for a two-day getaway that starts at Muskoka Brewery in Bracebridge where Adam Melnyk gives me — not my kid — a sample of Pancake Breakfast Specialty Maple Ale. It’s a collaboration by Muskoka Brewery, Lake of Bays Brewing, Sawdust City Brewing and Clear Lake Brewing and it’s made with maple sap instead of water.
Apparently this beer is better than last year’s version because a problem with the cinnamon settling at the bottom of the kegs has been rectified.
“To me it tastes like cinnamon raisin bagels,” admits Melnyk.
“Doughy malt centre with aromas of cinnamon and vanilla,” is how the menu board describes it.
Whatever you taste, it’s a fun beer and I’m happy with a couple of mouthfuls.
Hazel has better luck joining in the maple fun at our next stop, the new Algonquin Café & Deli in Huntsville, where general manager Shaun Israelstam presides over the Southern Pride smoker and we sample maple-infused brisket, salmon and peameal sandwiches and help ourselves to a pot of maple baked beans.
“Maple is amazing, maple is sweet, maple is good,” says Israelstam. “I’m a pancake guy on Sundays and I can’t do Aunt Jemima pancake syrup. I do maple syrup.”
He’s from Uxbridge and this is his first maple festival. He particularly enjoys watching people go “ooooooh” when they taste “the Cadillac of maple syrup.”
For our maple getaway, we stay at Deerhurst Resort, which I visited in 2010 to see how executive chef Rory Golden was preparing to feed world leaders at the G8 summit, and again last year for a Family Day weekend wolf howl in nearby Algonquin Provincial Park.
Deerhurst goes all out for maple season in March and April.
Golden, who’s now the resort’s director of food and beverage, joins us for the three-course, maple-themed table d’hôte that runs for the month of April. I go for the maple-infused carrot and ginger soup, roast chicken stuffed with maple-infused local cranberries and maple crème brûlée. We all start with tumblers of sparkling maple sap water, made by a Huntsville company called Tapped.
There’s no maple twist to our campfire s’mores after dinner, but we love maple breakfast poutine the next morning. “Fries” are made from funnel cake batter. Banana slices, blueberries, strawberries and a couple of dollops of whipped cream stand in for cheese curds, I guess. The dish is pulled together by a stunning maple cream “gravy.”
We also sneak in a visit Deerhurst’s sugar bush, run by Sweet Muskoka owner/producer Brian O’Donoghue. He has a few stainless steel buckets hanging on trees to show how things used to be done, but now he taps more than 1,000 sugar maple trees and feeds the sap down plastic lines into storage tanks and then into a sugar shack where it’s boiled and evaporated until it’s reduced into pure maple syrup that’s used by the Deerhurst chefs and sold to syrup hounds like us.
It takes 40 to 50 litres of sap to create one litre of syrup, a fun fact I always conjure up when I happily pay the price that real Canadian maple syrup commands. New fun fact: O’Donoghue is the first person to ever advise me to freeze my syrup until I’m ready to use it.
I’m happy to hear that Canada launched a new grading system in 2016 based on the percentage of light that passes through the syrup. Instead of using meaningless grades and numbers, there are now four colour classes with taste descriptors: “golden, delicate taste,” “amber, rich taste,” “dark, robust taste,” and “very dark, strong taste.”
I buy two pretty, maple leaf-shaped bottles of amber syrup as gifts, and a big plastic jug of dark for my family, and then wander over to Golden who is making maple taffy on snow.
Somehow the men have found just enough fresh snow to fill a small trough to make these great Canadian spring treats. Golden boils pure maple syrup to just the right temperature, drizzles it on the snow, and rolls it up on a thin, flat wooden stick that reminds me of the tongue depressors my late father used as a doctor.
Hazel somehow wrangles five sticks of maple taffy while I’m blissed out savouring one. To each her own maple syrup moment.