Atikamekw maple syrup: an ancestral tradition passed on with passion

Share

In Yann Flamand’s maple grove in Manawan, the tradition continues with the unwavering support of friends and family. All photos are from RCI/Marie-Claude Simard

When Jean-Paul Echaquan talks about his grandfather who left Manawan every spring to go to the forest to collect maple sap, time stops. Suddenly, we see ourselves half a century earlier following the old Atikamekw in all the stages of production of the precious syrup, as young Jean-Paul did at the age of 5.

“I would always join my grandfather in his sugar bush [natural forest where sugar maples grow and where the  maple sap is harvested]. I saw him working all the time, that’s how I learned, that’s how he passed on the knowledge to us. I was very young, and already I had the strength to carry the maple water,” he explains.

Jean-Paul Echaquan (center) talks to kids visiting the sugar tent in Manawan.

Today, Jean-Paul Echaquan is passing on the knowledge and tradition of his ancestors to the youth of Manawan, an Atikamekw community located in the Lanaudière region of Quebec. More than 2000 Atikamekw live in this community accessible only by an 86 km unpaved forest road north of Saint-Michel-des-Saints. They speak their own language, Atikamekw.

The “sugar tent”

During sugar-making season in April, Mr. Echaquan and other elders welcome elementary and high school students to the “sugar tent”, located 10 km from Manawan, not far from the main road. Here, students learn about tradition while enjoying the maple taffy.

Students from the Manawan High School wait for the maple taffy to be ready to be eaten.

“My grandfather used to say all the time: ‘You should never waste this water, it’s very precious’,” he adds.

Jean-Paul Echaquan knows how much work it takes to collect this precious maple sap which has a water-like consistency.  With his partners, he collects the sap needed for the educational activities and gatherings at the sugar tent in the sugar bush located deep in the forest,

Irinatikw, the maple tree

The maple tree is called “irinatikw” in the Atikamekw language. “Irinatikwapo” is the sap.

“Iriniw means Man. Irinatikw means a man or somebody who produces something, who works for the family, for the human being. Wapo means liquid. ” – Jean-Paul Echaquan

Squirrel or woodpecker?

It is by observing animals that the Atikamekw, a very long time ago, discovered this sweet sap with great nutritional and medicinal properties. They noticed that when the squirrel or woodpecker, depending on the legends, made incisions in the bark, sweet drops would flow along the tree and harden in the sun.

“Our ancestors made holes in the maple tree so that the sap could flow easily. With a small container of bark, they collected the maple water,” he explains.

After a long process of evaporation by boiling the water over a fire, the sap became maple syrup and maple sugar. “We mixed the syrup with the meat, with our herbal teas. Just the sap has medicinal properties. It cleanses the digestive system, it gives a boost of energy.”

The “pierced spoon”, an essential tool to make the maple taffy

To make maple taffy the Atikamekw way, the syrup is cooked in a pot for about 45 minutes on a wood fire. The pierced spoon is used as a thermometer. When a bubble forms while blowing into the hole of the spoon, it indicates that the taffy is ready. When the bubble is even larger, after a longer cooking period, the syrup has reached the sugar stage and can be made into a sugar loaf.

When the taffy is ready, it is spread on the snow in long ribbons. Once it has cooled, it is rolled up on a stick and eaten like a soft lollipop. Yummy!

Sikon, the Atikamekw pre-spring

The Atikamekw have six seasons. Sikon, or pre-spring, is the right season for collecting the sap. The ideal moment is when daytime temperature rise just above the freezing point while at night the temperature drops just below freezing. This transition happens roughly from the end of March to the end of April.

“Sikon, it’s sugar-making season. It was during this period that our ancestors left the village to go in the forest, and would settle there for a few months to collect maple water, explains Jean-Paul Echaquan. Sometimes they waited for the ice to melt to come back.”

Elders Richard Flamand and Adrienne Niquay talk about the maple syrup tradition to the youth in the sugar tent.

Until the 1950s, the village was deserted during Sikon. “Each family went to their territory to produce syrup, but also to hunt and dry the meat,” explains Richard Flamand, another elder who welcomes the young people to the sugar tent.

“It was a production for the needs of the family and the community, but also, when the Hudson’s Bay Company was there, they took our sugar, he says. To preserve resources, our ancestors did not always go to the same place.”

“When they got their first loaf of sugar, they would put it in the middle of the lake as an offering to thank the water and the tree,” adds his wife, Adrienne Niquay. There was a lot of contemplation to do during the sugar season.”

A tradition kept alive by dedicated artisans

Even today, 5 or 6 families still have an active sugar bush in the forest, and collect maple sap on their respective family territories, near Manawan. This is the case for Mr. Echaquan’s son, Yann Flamand, a young father who, with the help of family and friends is wholeheartedly involved in the traditional production of maple syrup.

Yann Flamand (right), his brother Nipinik and Shayne Petiquay watch over the evaporation of the maple water that boils on a wood fire in a 40-gallon metal pan.

Sisipaskotokanan: the mountain where there are maple trees

There is no road to Yann Flamand’s maple grove. Only a snowmobile trail that goes into the forest from behind the Manawan arena. After a few kilometres, we arrive at Sisipaskotokanan, the mountain where there are maple trees, in English. It’s right there.

“We came here with my grandparents, I must have been 7 or 8 years old,” he explains. We used to go up the mountain on snowshoes. I thought it was really far away! We used to sleep here.”
Without electricity, far from the village, the site operates in calmness. A production tent is installed in the middle. Some 40 gallons (150 litres) of maple water boil quietly in an evaporator (big metal pan) set on a wood fire.

“Our grandfathers boiled the sap in large pots. We decided to try a metal pan, five or six years ago. We’re able to reduce a lot more sap water that way.”

Woode tools made by hand by Yann and Nipinik’s grand-father.

A long-term commitment

The work begins several weeks before the sugar season.

“It’s a lot of preparation. You have to cut firewood, set up tents, make places where to set fires, make incisions in the trees, hang the buckets,” he says.

Fortunately, family and friends are also involved in the success of the operations.

Alanis Flamand, Yann’s aunt, collects the maple sap.

This year, 116 maples were tapped. From 120 to 180 litres are harvested daily. All this water is collected by hand, making regular rounds on snowshoes with large 18-litre containers.

The evaporation of all this sap is done entirely on wood fires. The 150 litre boil for about 7 hours. Then, the remaining liquid is poured into a big cooking pot where it cooks for another hour. It is precisely in this final phase that Atikamekw maple syrup takes on its full flavour.

“We are proud of our hard work and it shows in the taste of our syrup! “says a smiling Shayne Petiquay.

The smoke from the wood fire gives the Atikamekw maple syrup its unique flavour.

A unique flavour

The taste of Atikamekw syrup stands out from commercial maple syrups, which seem too sweet and bland in comparison. Served in a tea made with maple water, it is a pure delight!

According to Yann Flamand, wood fire is a major factor. “The syrup tastes like smoke and fresh air. It is a maple wood fire that gives the syrup its best taste. »

Towards commercialization?

Various avenues have been explored to market this product. For the time being, Yann does not wish to take this path. He believes that to comply with market standards, he will have to compromise the quality and taste of his syrup, which he refuses to do.

A small bottle of the precious Atikamekw syrup near the lake, in Manawan.

A precious liquid

In the end, 150 litres of maple water will produce 4 litres of syrup, a ratio of 40 to 1. Roughly 30 litres will be produced this year.

A lot of energy is invested in the production of these precious litres. On top of all the hard work involved in the syrup production, Yann and his wife have to juggle with family responsibilities and their respective jobs in Manawan.

“It’s a passion for me, he says without hesitation. Maybe because when I was young I loved it so much to be with my grandparents in the woods. It’s a tradition I want to pass on to my children.”

A passion that is passed on from generation to generation. All photos are from RCI/Marie-Claude Simard

Take a look at an Atikamekw sugar bush. Watch our video!

Share
Tagged with: , , , , ,
Posted in Indigenous, Society
@*@ Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 characters available

Note: By submitting your comments, you acknowledge that Radio Canada International has the right to reproduce, broadcast and publicize those comments or any part thereof in any manner whatsoever. Radio Canada International does not endorse any of the views posted. Your comments will be pre-moderated and published if they meet netiquette guidelines.

Netiquette »

When you express your personal opinion in an online forum, you must be as courteous as if you were speaking with someone face-to-face. Insults and personal attacks will not be tolerated. To disagree with an opinion, an idea or an event is one thing, but to show disrespect for other people is quite another. Great minds don’t always think alike—and that’s precisely what makes online dialogue so interesting and valuable.

Netiquette is the set of rules of conduct governing how you should behave when communicating via the Internet. Before you post a message to a blog or forum, it’s important to read and understand these rules. Otherwise, you may be banned from posting.

  1. RCInet.ca’s online forums are not anonymous. Users must register, and give their full name and place of residence, which are displayed alongside each of their comments. RCInet.ca reserves the right not to publish comments if there is any doubt as to the identity of their author.
  2. Assuming the identity of another person with intent to mislead or cause harm is a serious infraction that may result in the offender being banned.
  3. RCInet.ca’s online forums are open to everyone, without regard to age, ethnic origin, religion, gender or sexual orientation.
  4. Comments that are defamatory, hateful, racist, xenophobic, sexist, or that disparage an ethnic origin, religious affiliation or age group will not be published.
  5. In online speak, writing in ALL CAPS is considered yelling, and may be interpreted as aggressive behaviour, which is unpleasant for the people reading. Any message containing one or more words in all caps (except for initialisms and acronyms) will be rejected, as will any message containing one or more words in bold, italic or underlined characters.
  6. Use of vulgar, obscene or objectionable language is prohibited. Forums are public places and your comments could offend some users. People who use inappropriate language will be banned.
  7. Mutual respect is essential among users. Insulting, threatening or harassing another user is prohibited. You can express your disagreement with an idea without attacking anyone.
  8. Exchanging arguments and opposing views is a key component of healthy debate, but it should not turn into a dialogue or private discussion between two users who address each other without regard for the other participants. Messages of this type will not be posted.
  9. Radio Canada International publishes contents in five languages. The language used in the forums has to be the same as the contents we publish. The usage of other languages, with the exception of some words, is forbidden. Messages that are off-topic will not be published.
  10. Making repetitive posts disrupts the flow of discussions and will not be tolerated.
  11. Adding images or any other type of file to comments is forbidden. Including hyperlinks to other websites is allowed, as long as they comply with netiquette. Radio Canada International  is in no way responsible for the content of such sites, however.
  12. Copying and pasting text written by someone else, even if you credit the author, is unacceptable if that text makes up the majority of your comment.
  13. Posting any type of advertising or call to action, in any form, to Radio Canada International  forums is prohibited.
  14. All comments and other types of content are moderated before publication. Radio Canada International  reserves the right to refuse any comment for publication.
  15. Radio Canada International  reserves the right to close a forum at any time, without notice.
  16. Radio Canada International  reserves the right to amend this code of conduct (netiquette) at any time, without notice.
  17. By participating in its online forums, you allow Radio Canada International to publish your comments on the web for an indefinite time. This also implies that these messages will be indexed by Internet search engines.
  18. Radio Canada International has no obligation to remove your messages from the web if one day you request it. We invite you to carefully consider your comments and the consequences of their posting.

*