If you want to find nature’s purest maple syrup, Quebec is the ideal destination. The province accounts for roughly 75 percent of global production. And the best place to discover this Canadian gold is in the small village of St. Victor, where the Bernard family has been tapping maple trees since the early 1800s.
“Maple trees actually can live for almost forever,” Martin Bernard told us as he led us past majestic hardwood columns that hold a treasure as rich as any ancient memory, and as sweet as the dreams and joys of passing generations.
In times of exploration or conquest, conflict or tranquility, the trees of St. Victor faithfully decant the finest organic maple syrup in the world. The process begins each spring, as temperatures rise and the sap begins to run within each trunk. Responding to the movement of the trees’ internal clock, local farmers parade into the groves like figures in a diorama, ready to pierce the bark with taps that will collect the sap over a period of six weeks.
For the Bernards, syrup is a tradition so deep that maple trees and the family tree and completely intertwined. “If you come here you’ll see about 40 people working at the company and 20 are from the Bernard family,” Martin promises. He’s the grandson of the patriarch who first commercialized what had essentially been a family avocation. “We make sure to have a member of the family in each department to make sure everything is produced exactly. It’s a great pride for us. We really enjoy to do it — it’s not only a business for us, we have been born and raised to do this. It would be hard to live without maple syrup — it’s all our life.”
The family company, Les Industries Bernard & Fils Ltée (Bernard & Sons), has become world famous for the quality of the exquisitely slow nectar the trees create as they shiver through the blanching gusts of winter. The key to maintaining this high standard, says Martin, is a system that ensures the integrity of each unit sold: “If we produce one million bottles, the first bottle and the last bottle should be exactly the same in terms of taste and consistency.”
Of Quebec’s estimated 43 million maple trees in production, Bernard & Sons maintains 5,000, and also refines the sap collected by 2,000 other farmers. “Mostly here the guy who owns the sugar bush got it from his father, who got it from his father,” Martin explains, using the region’s colloquial term for a stand of maple trees.
The farmers look to weather and temperature to know when the trees are ready to be tapped. “We need to have a good temperature — the temperature has to be below zero Celsius during the night, ideally minus 5. During day need we need above zero, 5 to 10 degrees Celsius.”
When the sap arrives at Bernard & Sons’ production facility, its composition is about 2 percent sugar. Using reverse osmosis, the sugar concentration is boosted to about 15 percent. Later, boiling will raise the concentration to 66 percent. The final step is filtration and sealing the syrup in a drum.
Managing the boiling is key. Excessive temperature will alter the taste and color, two variables that help define the quality of the finished product. In Canada, maple syrup is assigned one of five grades: Canada number 1 extra light, Canada number 1 light, Canada number 1 medium, Canadian number 2 amber, or Canada number 3 dark. The coldest temperatures produce the highest quality syrup. Near the end of the sap flow, as temperatures warm, the tree will produce a darker syrup with a stronger taste.
To ensure the accuracy of grades, Bernard & Sons checks each syrup drum it receives from its network of farmers, an estimated 40,000 drums each year. “Every company has to check their grade by a third-party agency that will grade each drum. But we also have our people in-house that will double-check every single thing. We know our clients and we know what they want, so if they want stronger taste, smoother taste, things like this, so we regrade every single drum to make sure everything we produce is per the client specs. Taste and consistency can vary a lot. What we’re good at is to standardize all things.”
Organic certification requires a separate third-party inspection. Because maple trees thrive without pesticides or fertilizer, the key difference between organic and nonorganic syrup is the type of drums used, usually stainless steel, and how the drums and tubes are cleaned.
Choosing organic syrup is also an important way for a consumer to know that the product contains none of the high fructose corn syrup, gums, artificial flavors and other questionable ingredients common in mass-market table syrup. Bernard & Sons’ pure organic syrup traces a direct route from maple forest to morning flapjack, rather than the opaque path through global chemical labs and warehouses favored by the industry’s familiar plastic matrons, Aunt Jemima and Mrs. Butterworth.
“We focus on how it is made — it is almost handmade — no preservatives added, and we focus on the taste,” says Martin. “It’s probably the best sweetener you can use, the most natural one. And it’s a special taste you will only find with the real maple syrup.”
— Charlie Dodge