Growing up, maple syrup, real maple syrup anyway, was almost a foreign concept. I grew up in Calgary where there are very few maple trees. Syrup was in a plastic bottle on the table Saturday mornings with pancakes. Real maple syrup was a treasured tin brought back from our summer vacations to my Mom’s childhood home in Ontario and only used for special occasions.
In a place where the biggest winter event that got people excited was when the next Chinook blew into town, Quebec’s annual Winter Carnival and Bonhomme were things we saw on the news and learned about in French class. And making real maple syrup in a sugar shack? Well, that just seemed like a country far away. Visions of collecting sap and boiling it were vignettes nestled between The Friendly Giant and Mr. Dress-up when we were allowed to watch the beloved CBC. And as a child, when I saw that, the thing I wanted to try most of all was glistening, sweet maple taffy on clean white snow.
Years have passed on, many years in fact, and still I have never made the time to go out east to take part in this very Canadian experience. I will someday.
In the meantime, last year I discovered something that will help me fill the void. It is the Calgary Maplefest des Sucres. This event is held the first weekend of March by the Association canadienne-francaise de l’Alberta, Calgary chapter (ACFA Calgary). The festival is celebrating its 15th year and it supports the ACFA Calgary goal of promoting and developing the local Francophone community.
Last year Maplefest found a new home at Heritage Park, which I think is the perfect venue. With its wide open outdoor spaces and winterized indoor facilities, it is well suited to host an event that has unexpected early warm spring days, like last year, or chilly winter days, like this year. From the moment you arrive at the park you are transported from Calgary to Quebec with a Bonjour/Hello greeting from the multitude of volunteers. And if you want to practice your French language skills this is a good place to do so, they encourage it.
Activities focussing on promoting French culture, or just having fun, are situated in various places throughout the park and they cater to everyone. If you want to sit and listen to traditional music and watch dancers or theatre, you can do that. If you have kids that like crafts, you can do that. If you are like me and have a child that likes to play like crazy outside, hot or cold, you can do that too. And most of all, if you want to eat maple type things you can definitely do that!
When my son and I go we always start at the main Celebration tent and get our pre-purchased maple themed meal. The meal itself is a bit expensive but I don’t mind shelling out the extra cash when I know it goes towards hosting the festival. And who doesn’t want to eat crepes with maple syrup, maple ham, maple style baked beans, maple pea soup and more? Once we eat that we’re ready to go on our way and walk around the park.
Our ending point of the day finishes at my favourite part of the whole festival, the makeshift Sugar Shack. It’s here where I get to go back to being a kid and experience that sweet maple taffy on white snow. When you put it in your mouth it is filled first with cold bits of ice melting on your tongue and then the delicious maple flavour takes over completely. It is better than I could have ever imagined when I was a child and it is the main reason why I will keep going back.
If you are in Calgary during the first weekend of March take a chance. It won’t be Quebec’s Carnival but sure is a nice substitute.
A very special thank you goes out to artist Timothy Wilson Hoey who allowed me to use an image of his Maple Syrup painting for this post. He is currently touring Canada with his art show, O-Canada, which features 150 images celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday. I was able to see the show recently when it was in Canmore and it caught my imagination. Check out his Facebook page for a great walk down Canadian memory lane.