"That’s the biggest huskie I’ve ever seen," I exclaimed as the huge white beast bounded up and licked my hand. Amy agreed. We petted the furry monster as we tramped through the snow to the front door of the Sucrerie de la Montagne, an hour outside Montreal. We had driven across the bridges of the St. Lawrence Seaway and headed up into the empty hills near the border of Ontario, where we planned to stay the night, sample some of the famous, traditionally Quebecois meals and revel in the maple sugar ambiance.
The Sucrerie de la Montagne, or sugar-shack of the mountain, was the dream-turned-reality of Pierre Faucher, once a businessman in the big city, now the bearded proprietor of this collection of authentically built cabins and lodges. We had seen the place on Anthony Bourdain’s television show, No Reservations; I had surprised my fiancée, Amy, with this visit. Of course, Bourdain’s ever-present fear of the "wilderness" manifested itself in his portrayal of Pierre as something of an eccentric. The famed cook and travel writer’s visit had been humorous rather than sublime.
Pierre’s choice of leaving the everyday world and building his dream from nothing to a successful restaurant and tourist destination was indeed eccentric. But for Amy and I, his bold decision was also the epitome of courage.
The huskie that had greeted us turned out to be mostly wolf, a mere one-year-old named Lulu, not yet full grown. She flopped on the floor as Stefan, Pierre’s son, gave us the lowdown on our accommodations and meals. "The cabin you’ll be staying in has foundations two hundred and fifty years old, the first one my father rebuilt. I used to stay in it as a little boy." He was leaving the next day for his honeymoon, a short break from helping his father run the Sucrerie.
Our cabin, the Maisonette du Sous-bois, was by an old lumber mill, near the field where Pierre’s horses played. It had a huge stone fireplace, wood rocking chairs and love seats draped in animal furs. Modern conveniences were charmingly hidden by huge wooden beams and dark wood. A staircase led up to a loft, where our bed and a small claw-footed tub waited. A door that we thought led to the outside actually went into a wood-paneled bathroom, warm and comfortable despite the January temperatures.
Once we had settled in, time had arrived for our real goal – food. We walked past the other cabins, a "general store", and the bakery to the main lodge. Since we were only one of two couples dining that weeknight (it was off-season), a table had been prepared in the smaller dining room, in front of a roaring fire. The other dining room was enormous, with a stage for traditional Quebecois musicians, and a dance floor in the center. Holiday decorations hung on the walls. Stefan told us that a week before, on New Year’s, the restaurant had hosted several hundred guests. During maple sugaring season, thirty to forty thousand people visited, to witness the process and sample the fresh syrup. I had tapped a few trees and boiled some maple sap in my time, and though I wanted to experience it again, I was glad for the snowy silence and the personal attention from Stefan and Pierre.
Pierre appeared at this point, cooking dinner for us himself, serving dish after dish of authentic cuisine with a booming laugh. We began with "caribou", a drink that had once been made by trappers who combined caribou blood and moonshine. No one really did this anymore; each family instead had their own recipe. Pierre’s take on it included red and white wines, blueberry wine and sweet whiskey. The combination sounded daunting, but turned out to be one of the best mixed drinks I’ve ever had – sweet and light, with barely a taste of the serious alcohol content. Amy and I sipped our way through several glasses each, never tiring of our new favorite beverage.
We had fruit ketchup, sweet pickles and pickled beets, along with a gigantic bottle of homemade maple syrup, which we poured liberally on everything. Pierre brought us salted pork, hearth-baked fresh bread and white pea soup, all delicious. Our main courses included Canadian bacon, beans, meatballs, soufflé, sausage links, mashed potatoes with garlic and traditional meat pies. Everything was drenched in the magnificent maple syrup and the delicious fruit ketchup. The portions were reasonable, but the number of dishes packed our stomachs to the limit. Lulu offered to help us clean our plates. We finished with tea, while Pierre warned us, "If a bear scratches on your door, just tell him you know me", and laughed mightily. Back at the Maisonette du Sous-bois, so stuffed I could barely lift the logs, I built a fire with birch and French newspapers; Amy and I finished the night reading by the soothing flames.
Breakfast the next morning was just as substantial. Although we were still recovering from last night’s feast, we ate every bite, drinking hot coffee and talking to a local Native American who was there selling his homemade necklaces. Then Pierre shepherded us to the general store, where we stocked up on the famous syrup. We wished Stefan an excellent honeymoon. Accompanied by Lulu, we walked hand-in-hand past the shaggy horses, back to the mundane world, wishing that magical places like the Sucrerie de la Montagne were the reality of our everyday lives, and that we all had the courage of Pierre Faucher to create castles in the air, or at least sucreries in the mountains of Quebec.
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