I’m sure around the world people believe that each Spring all Canadians are out tapping trees and sitting beside a pot of sap boiling down to syrup while eating poutine and wearing denim head to toe.
But I’ve never made maple syrup and although I’m Canadian I realized I didn’t know much about it – this is until Ottawa Valley Maple Adventures.
As Canadians I think we take Maple Syrup for granted. It just exists – everywhere. Well actually that is not true. It’s possible to buy it everywhere but if you go to a diner for breakfast you’re likely getting some kind of maple flavoured syrup. You have to know to ask for the good stuff.
And that’s because maple syrup is valuable. It’s over ten times more valuable than oil. In 2012 there was the great Maple Syrup Heist where three men stole $18 million dollars in maple syrup. This is why we call it liquid gold. Hollywood bought the story rights and a movie is in the works.
Making maple syrup is in our blood, or at least our geography as 85% of the world’s production is in Canada and most of that is in Quebec.
ALSO READ: Maple Blossom Beignets Recipe
But that doesn’t mean you have to go to a sugar shack in Quebec. Ontario is also a large producer, as is New Brunswick and my home province of Nova Scotia. We just don’t mass produce it like in Quebec.
And now maple syrup is trending. My generation really has no idea how to make it but we have that romantic vision of cooking it over open fire, wearing our best plaid shirts and spring mittens.
But most of us still look to Quebec for that experience and have no idea that we don’t need to book a sugar shack reservation months in advance as we have the sweet stuff in our own backyard.
And we have it all year round.
Now if you know anything about maple syrup you’ll think making maple syrup all year round is impossible. But the Ottawa Valley Maple Adventures tour developed a way for city slickers like me to come in the summer and experience what maple life is all about.
Ottawa Valley Maple Syrup Adventures
First of All: Where is the Ottawa Valley
Ottawa Valley is part of Ontario’s Highlands. And when I told friends I was headed there no one really knew where the highlands were (city folk…) but it’s easiest to describe as on the way to Ottawa or on the way to or Algonquin Provincial Park. But that would imply that it’s simply a region to drive through.
Instead it draws crowds of white water rafters in the summer and so many snowmobilers in the winter that hotels are located on the trails. But there is a slim chance I would white water raft or snow mobile.
I’m here for the food.
What I love about this Ottawa Valley Maple Adventures tour is that it was started by a group of businesses in the Ottawa Valley. They are all independent small family businesses that decided to band together and offer something that didn’t exist.
I had a smile on my face writing this post about the Ottawa Valley Maple Adventures tour because I met such lovely people. I don’t know…sometimes being in the city I forget what it’s like to live in a more rural area. The land and the people reminded me of Nova Scotia and I really felt at home in Ontario’s Highlands.
This is not surprising as I took the quiz To Find Your Inner Wanderer I discovered I was a rustic roamer, which is described as:
I seek the quiet comfort of charming towns and back roads, and my only goal is to explore. I appreciate the little things, the authentic local experiences, warm hospitality, and humble people with big hearts.
Immersing myself in local culture, and embracing the spirit of the community, helps me escape my daily routine.
This is the first time a quiz nailed it.
BONUS: Take the quiz to find out what kind of wanderer you are for a chance to win a free vacation.
Maple Syrup Cooking Class
Spectacle Lake Lodge has all the nostalgic vibes of the lodge from the Dirty Dancing movie. It’s family owned and most of the staff have worked there so long they are considered family.
Sharon Mahussier bought the lodge with her husband, who has a chef and unfortunately has passed on. He hired Joanne, a 15-year old dishwasher who had an interest in cooking.
To ensure that happened they paid for Joanne’s tuition to cooking school and years later she’s the chef complete with her Red Seal certification.
Sharon continues to support her growth by encouraging her to evolve the menu, and most recently they’ve purchase smokers to experiment with a few new menu items.
Spectacle Lake offers two options for the Ottawa Valley Maple Adventures tour. You can have a maple inspired dinner OR better yet jump in the kitchen with Joanne and make it yourself.
You’ll learn how to make a maple syrup vinaigrette for salad, maple sriracha marinated chicken. You must save room for the devastatingly decadent maple bacon fudge brownie ice cream parfait.
Love bacon in desserts? Make these maple bacon cookies at home.
If you have kids and want to give them the kind of vacation you had as a kid this is the place. The lodge has 3 cottages with full kitchen and barbecue that can house up to 6 people, or stay in one of 6 rooms in the lodge.
They host many weddings and family reunions but are also the hottest restaurant in the region every second Friday during the summer as there is a Chinese buffet with stir fry station.
Spectacle Lake Lodge
17B Spectacle Lake Road, Barry’s Bay, K0J 1B0
Tel: 613.756.2324, [email protected]
Maple Syrup Tasting
Don and Mary Helen run The Deakins on Mountainview B&B in Ottawa Valley. The B&B experience is really all about the hosts and this is an experience that really shines. While the couple is likely in their 70s, they have the spirit of someone half their age. They lived all over the world, including Singapore and Ireland and finally retired in Ottawa Valley.
After a hearty meal at Spectacle Lake Lodge I had a quick nap and then sat down for a maple syrup tasting. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had never really thought about different flavours of maple syrup – only the flavour on the table at that time.
We had an evening tea with golden and amber maple syrup along with scones and Devonshire cream.
I learned that maple syrup is named by its colour. Today it’s classified as golden, amber, dark and very dark, based on how much light passes through it – bonus these are the same names as in the United States so you can go to Vermont and know what you’re getting.
Names were once more ambiguous. For example golden and amber were once called extra light and light and people thought it was a diet maple syrup with fewer calories.
It was too confusing and so maple syrup producers gathered for a new naming system that helped consumers. I could have talked about maple syrup all night with these two.
But I went to bed as I knew there was a full day ahead with the Ottawa Valley Maple Adventures tour.
The Deakins on Mountainview B&B
2459 Mountainview Road, Killaloe, K0J 2A0
Tel: 613.757.3209, [email protected]
Making Your Own Maple Syrup
I stayed the night at the B&B and after the signature maple breakfast (pro tip: use it in your coffee instead of sugar) I went to make maple syrup with Don.
On the way to the sugar shack Don walks you through the forest and it’s an adventure in itself. He has a game where he gives you a log of a tree and you need to find that tree on the route.
Along the way he explains how maples grow, what makes for a good maple producing tree, the pests.
When Don took over the land much of the old maples had been chopped down along with so many other trees. So while he is harvesting maple syrup he’s also actively planting more trees.
As a maple tree needs 40 years to grow before it can be tapped. Don confides that he’s basically rebuilding the forest for someone else. But instead of feeling sad there’s an intense sense of pride.
He once wanted to work in forestry and instead went into teaching. Now his second career reunites him with his first love.
Even before I met Don I thought he was brilliant. He created an experience that no one else has (that I’ve heard of).
Don is is making maple syrup out of season so you don’t have to come during the small window of time in the spring. He collects the sap and boils it down 70% of the way and then freezes it.
When a group comes that wants to make maple syrup he has enough on hand. However, he proclaims that you need at least 4 people in a group. He finds in twos one person takes over, but in fours the dynamic is different everyone wants a turn at making it.
At the sugar shack you can see everything in action. How to boil it down, measure it, bottle it and then grade it based on colour.
Maple syrup is one of the best souvenirs from Canada but having your own syrup takes it to a new level.
I was really sad to leave Don and Mary Helen. I could have talked to them all day. They’ve lived such an interesting life all over the world and then instead of taking it easy when they moved back they took on an entirely new project.
It’s so admirable. I really hope I have the same spirit at their age.
Shinrin-yoku (森林浴) in Japanese or forest bathing in English is the newest health trend. But taking a walk through the forest is just part of every day life in Ottawa Valley.
The Shaw family have managed the Shaw Woods private land since 1847. Although it is private land it is open to the public for self-guided walks.
The trails are leisurely and open year round from dawn through dusk. Printable maps are available online and there is a QR code system on site.
Johnny’s Lookout Trail is only 1.4km through a gorgeous forest and includes maple trees, which is why it’s on the Ottawa Valley Maple Adventures tour. It leads to a picnic-worthy look out with a gorgeous view of Snake River where sometimes you can see resident bald eagles.
Visit a Sugar Bush
If you want to geek out on maple syrup you must come to Mapleside Sugar Bush run by Ray and Carol Bonenberg. Don from Deakins B&B is a serious hobbyist but Ray is a small family business.
Like many in the region he just couldn’t retire. Once he finished his career in forestry he bought land with a sugar bush. He then planted more maples and bought the land next door.
A sugar bush isn’t really a bush. Instead it describes a maple orchard or plantation of maple trees. For any maple syrup harvester taking care of the trees and planting new ones are part of the process.
This is what makes Ray so good at his job.
While Ray once traditionally tapped like Don, in order to keep up with production (and not need to stay up 20 hours a day during maple season) he evolved with technology. Former president of the Ontario Maple Producers Association, Ray is a great example of a modern maple syrup producer who is still using traditional experience but has modernized with new technology to create high quality ingredients.
Visiting Ray is a different experience from Don who is a very small producer. Yet as a commercial producer it was great to also hear Don explain the process with such joy. Both men really feel such a strong connection to the forest and are so excited for maple season. Ray was also able to continue the story with a realistic approach toward using technology. Yes it’s artisanal but maple producers have evolved.
Afterwards we went to the store and tried more maple syrup and maple products, including barbecue sauce, maple sugar and maple jelly. I couldn’t leave without buying sap vinegar and very dark maple syrup – most people don’t like it but I love it!
Drink Local Beer
Two Chris Thompsons own Whitewater Brewing Co. Staff have an ongoing laugh when someone calls to speak to Chris Thompson. For future reference ask if the Chris you want to speak with has an English accent and says whilst.
I met with the Chris who grew up in Cobden, went away, came back to become a whitewater rafting instructor. He had no idea he would eventually open up a brewery with friends.
That sounds like the dream and if I read it on paper I might think this was a bro culture. However, Chris immediately strikes me as one of the most thoughtful and genuine people I’ve met in a while. You know when someone asks you how you are and you know they actually care about the answer. Over a flight of beer I catch myself answering his questions and remember I’m here to learn about him.
I love the story of Whitewater because Chris doesn’t gloss over the hard times. To make this happen they ended up sleeping in cars at night. They also ate the spent grain from the mashing (note: many brewers give this to pigs or cows). The town didn’t immediately buy into a new craft brewery business and worried it would encourage drunk driving.
But with persistence they persevered.
Today they have two locations and are thriving with seasonal beer. The Straight out of Cobden and the Maple Ale (part of the Ottawa Valley Maple Adventures tour) were both sold out! But there are plenty of other options and during the holidays they have the 12 beers of Christmas.
The menu does include local maple syrup as an ingredient. But I couldn’t resist the post popular items fish tacos and duck fat thick cut fries.
More Things to Do in Ottawa Valley
Willno Tavern has a standing room only Blues night each Tuesday night. They also offer a maple themed dinner in the spring and autumn in partnership with the Ottawa Valley Maple Adventures.
People at the B&B also loved the new Memories tea room in Maynooth (33057 Hastings County Road 62).
Ottawa Valley Maple Adventures Tour Details
There is a 1 day overnight sampler tour, which includes dinner, accommodation, maple products tastings, making maple syrup, forest bathing and a brewery tour for $300/person based on a group of six.
The full immersion tour is 2 days/2 nights. It also includes the cooking class as well as a tour of Mapleside Sugar Bush with Ray for $433/person based on a group of six.
It’s best to call if you’d like a custom tour.
Disclosure: This Ottawa Valley Maple Adventures tour was in partnership with Ontario’s Highlands Come Wander campaign and the Ottawa Valley Tourist Association. I met them in Quebec City at a conference. When they told me they had this Ottawa Valley Maple Adventures tour where you could make maple syrup out of season I knew I had to write about it. Since I’ve been home I’ve recommended this tour to so many people and I’m happy to recommend it to you.