Shelf Life. Your Ultimate Food Court Is Now In Session. Your Ultimate Food Court Is Now In Session.

MAPLE SYRUP

By john • • Mar 27th, 2004 • Category: Columns, Pantry Items

These are sticky-sweet times for Canada’s maple syrup industry: the good news is that sales are up (from 1991 to 2001, annual consumption of maple products increased from 110 grams to 160 grams per capita) and that maple syrup has recently aquired its own standardized assessment glossary ( featuring such ‘flavour families’ as Confectionery, Milky, Fruity, and the puzzling but awesome-sounding Non-Food Alien). The not so-good news is that northern maple trees can soon expect a beetle invasion, and that higher taxes loom over maple farmers. Meanwhile, Shelf Life is blissed out at the very sight of a bottle of the amber liquid. We love maple syrup. We love the fact that it is Canada’s own, iconic wonderstuff. We love it so much that we have searched high and low for just the right words to express the peaty, frost-born voluptuousness of our favourite elixir. In the end we borrowed a phrase from the Icelandic nymph Bjork, herself no stranger to the idylls of winter. Maple syrup is about big time sensuality. Oh yes it is. Maple syrup, we stand on guard for thee.

Pacing themselves throughout a marathon tasting session – plus consuming enough dollar-sized pancakes to frighten a wolverine – are this week’s judges: Elizabeth Baird, Food Editor, Canadian Living Magazine; Kim Gertler, a writer/filmmaker specialising in food, wine, and culture, whose new documentary ‘Lady Bush Doctor’ was recently broadcast on Discovery Civilization; and Dana Speers, chef/food writer for Food and Drink Magazine, Gardening Life, and Food and Wine Magazine. As always, space limitations prevent us from evaluating every brand in a given category; entries reflect the luck of the draw. Items are blind taste-tested and awarded between one and five stars. All entries are classified Grade A Medium.

Our Compliments
Pure Maple Syrup
375 ml, $6.99
available at IGA and affiliated stores

Elizabeth: Grade A Medium is the most popular strength for table syrup, and is usually made about mid-season, when the weather begins to warm. The Medium type should have a solid, flexible taste. This brand isn’t the best advertisement for the category: it’s far too sweet. Nice colour, shame about the sugar problem.


ONE STAR*

Kim: This one could have better viscosity – it slides off the pancake. I call this brand Maple Syrup Lite – it doesn’t have much body or personality, and the maple taste is barely there. I don’t mind the sweetness, but I do mind the aftertaste, which is like stale candy.


TWO STARS**

Dana: I was looking for that all-Canadian impact, but I found this one unexciting. It’s light on the tongue, and a little watery. Brand One isa bit one-dimensional, except for a strange, pasty aftertaste. Overall I agree with Elizabeth: the sugar element overrides everything else.


ONE STAR*

Brand One Total – FOUR STARS ****

Cleary’s
500 ml, $13.99
available at specialty and gourmet food stores

Elizabeth: This is a good, reasonable choice. Brand Two’s cognac-like colour makes a positive first impression, the thickness is appropriate, and the flavour doesn’t disappoint. It’s not the stuff of genius, but it might be useful in the kitchen, particularly with roast meat. Maple glazes are extremely nice on duck and pork, and maple glazed salmon is out of this world.


THREE STARS***

Kim: I find Brand Two better than average, and I’m trying to put my finger on what makes it work. There’s an indefinable factor it brings to the pancake – a nice marshmallowy quality, maybe a hint of buckwheat honey, or perhaps it’s a woodiness, a trace of sap. Quite delicious.


THREE AND A HALF STARS***1/2

Dana: I like to use maple syrup with vegetables, especially root varieties such as carrots and parsnips. Shallots too, which works for kids. I liked Brand Two a lot – it made me want to scoop up every last drop with the pancake. It really delivers the maple, and its lovely colour looks great. Zero aroma though.


FOUR STARS****

Brand Two Total – TEN AND A HALF STARS **********1/2

President’s Choice
100% Pure Maple Syrup
375 ml, $6.99
available wherever President’s Choice brand is distributed

Elizabeth: There’s a great story that the economist John Kenneth Galbraith tells about his boyhood, and his memories of the syrup-making process. One day he saw a mouse fall into a vat; later, that particular batch turned out to be the best syrup he ever tasted. This brand is all mouse – and not in a good way. It feels wimpy – it’s just substandard.


ZERO STARS

Kim: Bitter malt scent. No texture – poor body. Synthetic taste. It smells like chocolate bars that have been sitting around. Brand Three is an imposter trying to be real syrup – an illegal alien pretending to be Canadian.


ONE STAR*

Dana: I’m getting a massive hit of – what? There’s a very strong medicinal smell, and an astringent, gluey taste. The minute I put Brand Three in my mouth the flavour disappeared and all I could taste was saturated pancake. Even the okayish caramel colour and passable thickness aren’t enough to rescue it.


ZERO STARS

Brand Three Total – ONE STAR *


Turkey Hill
Absolutely Pure Maple Syrup
8.45 fl. oz. $11.95
available at specialty and gourmet food stores

Elizabeth: Much better. You can detect genuine maple right from the beginning, and Brand Four sinks satisfactorily into the pancake – you get that perfect squish when your fork digs into the dough. Lovely and dark, this one leaves you smacking your lips. This is the quintessential syrup.


FIVE STARS*****

Kim: Now we’re talking. I love the darkness of this syrup – it has a kind of Guinness ale colour, and the taste is equally rewarding. But it loses marks on texture – it’s a bit thin – and although the woody, apple-like undertones are a pleasure, for me they’re not the ultimate in syrup sensation.


THREE AND A HALF STARS***1/2

Dana: I would prefer it if this brand was a bit thicker, but otherwise it really hits the spot. The wonderful maple flavour lingers on your tongue for a long time. There’s a tantalizing molasses aroma, which makes me think that Brand Four would go very well with ice cream.


FOUR STARS****

Brand Four Total – TWELVE AND A HALF STARS ************1/2

Dutchman’s Gold
Pure Maple Syrup
500 ml. $13.99
available at gourmet and specialty food stores

Elizabeth: Some seasonal yields are better than others because of the way the sap runs; actually there are all sorts of reasons why brands of syrup can vary so widely. This one is just plain odd – it lacks maple essence. Brand Five has attractive thickness and eye-catching ruddiness, but I have no idea what the flavour is doing.
ONE STAR*

Kim: I’m afraid I’m not impressed with this one. First of all, it leaves an unappealing brown residue on the side of the decanter. Second, the smell is all wrong. And when you taste this brand you encounter a sort of coffee-candy undertone, which some people might enjoy, but – not me.
ONE AND A HALF STARS*1/2

Dana: One of the brilliant things about being a Canadian traveller is that those souvenir bottles of syrup really do make excellent gifts – people love them. But you’re always wondering how good the stuff really is. Let’s hope we’re not exporting Brand Five, which tastes like cheap chocolate. It’s like saying to someone in Prague or Rome: “Greetings! Please accept this bottle of liquid Tootsie Rolls!”
ZERO STARS

Brand Five Total – TWO AND A HALF STARS **1/2

Jakeman‘s
Pure Canadian Maple Syrup
500 ml. $12.99
available at specialty and gourmet food stores

Elizabeth: An absolutely classic syrup. I love all the traditional Eastern Canadian winter imagery that maple syrup conjures up – you know, the horse-drawn rides and the wintry nights. Brand Six totally lives up to my fantasy; it tastes the way sleigh bells sound. It’s rich and evocative and I would make a point of taking this brand to my hard-to-impress colleagues in France. Where, by the way, maple syrup has quite a following these days.
FOUR STARS****

Kim: This one really took me there. I love its reddy, fruity colour, and its nice unadulterated organic sappy quality. It gives you a delightful thickness on the tongue, and you can really taste the authenticity. I’m getting that total tree experience.
FOUR AND A HALF STARS****1/2

Dana: This one reminds me of my childhood visits to Quebec, and making maple candy in the woods. I can’t get enough of Brand Six’s round, buttery, intense flavour. It’s the real deal, whole and pure – I’m giving it five stars without hesitation, because it strikes exactly the right note.
FIVE STARS*****

Brand Six Total – THIRTEEN AND A HALF STARS *************1/2

Old Colony
Maple Syrup
250 ml. $5.49
widely available

Elizabeth: No staying power – this one doesn’t last very long on the palate, so you keep going back to the bottle. Brand Seven has a nice butterscotch element, and it coats the pancakes beautifully. But it lacks the epiphany you get with the best syrups – the maple flavour is there, but it doesn’t evoke a walk in the woods.
THREE AND A HALF STARS***1/2

Kim: Brand Seven is a bit thin, but I like the amber rum appearance. The taste is satisfactory, with some butterscotch and vanilla overtones. This one is all about ice cream. I’d sum it up as a good all-rounder.
THREE AND A HALF STARS***1/2

Dana: I can’t detect anything else but maple, which is good. And the maple has a nice flavour and aroma – you get a lot of bang for your buck. The only change I would make is to reduce it a bit more; it feels like it could be more concentrated.
FOUR STARS****

Brand Seven Total – ELEVEN STARS ***********

Temple’s Sugar Bush
100% Pure Maple Syrup
250 ml. $7.95
available at gourmet and specialty food stores

Elizabeth: The strongest component here is sweetness, not maple, and I also get an impression of something burnt. The colour is not bad, but the maple promise hasn’t been realized.
TWO STARS**

Kim: It’s passable – I’m not finding anything that distinguishes it. It’s not very mapley, but it’s not awful either. It lacks that organic trip-to-the-forest quality. Interesting overbrewed tea colour.
TWO AND A HALF STARS**1/2

Dana: There’s a hint of something in Brand Eight that’s bothering me – something other than maple. I’m getting a delayed ripple of taste … almost like soapiness. Generally speaking, this brand is medium colour, medium flavour – medium everything. I wouldn’t load my suitcases down with this brand if I wanted to impress some foodie Europeans.
TWO AND A HALF STARS**1/2

Brand Eight Total – SEVEN STARS*******

Results: Victory is sweet for Beachville Ontario’s own Jakeman’s Pure Canadian Maple Syrup. Turkey Hill and Cleary’s brands both garnered top marks, and corner-store veteran Old Colony scored in the higher range. Temple’s Own Sugar Bush isn’t out of the woods yet, while Our Compliments wandered around in circles. Dutchman’s Gold and Presidents Choice were surrounded by Mounties on snowshoes and told to come out of the shack with their hands up.

Off The Menu: If judges could ask consumers to remember one thing about this product, it would be the following: the quality of maple syrup is never constant. Take the case of Dutchman’s Gold, whose peculiar vintage failed to impress. Next year, however, could be a different story, as compounds in maple sap vary within a season, from one season to the next, according to the area, according to the soil, and from one maple tree to the next. Now that we think of it, syrup’s onery individuality is a credit to the nation. Unlike some other national foods we could name – think: hamburgers – maple syrup isn’t uniform, doesn’t reduce sentient creatures to patties, and is the very definition of the terms ‘organic’ and ‘slow food’. How Canuck can you get? Bonus: you just know that somewhere, somehow, a few strips of our other true north success story – duct tape – are holding a bucket to a maple tree.


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