maple syrup

New world

When I opened my eyes on Sunday morning there were snow flakes floating past the window. I lay in bed, trying to savor the extra hour at my disposal as much as I had savored the craft beers and fine company the night before. I was in Montreal, a guest of the tourism board, there to eat in general (I did) and experience their brand spanking new restaurant week called Montréal à Table (ditto). Friday and Saturday had been cold, windy, and drizzling at times, but the charm of the city shone bright in the gray depressing weather. I put on the heaviest clothes I brought, layered up, and ventured outside just as the snow stopped. As I walked the four kilometers to meet an old college friend for breakfast I stopped a few times to check the street signs and twice pulled out a map – my fancy-pants phone refused to roam – to make sure I was still heading the right way in an efficient fashion as I meandered a bit. Each time a fellow pedestrian or two would stop, ask if I needed help, and wish me a bonne journée.

My friend and I caught up, toured his neighborhood (he thoughtfully took me to his favorite food shops – all I can say is why doesn’t my neighborhood market have house made jars of cassoulet and choucroute in the fridge? why, it’s almost enough to make a girl pull up stakes and move like les filles du roi in the 1660s, so called because Louis XIV gave the poor, often orphaned or otherwise unprotected women trousseaux and dowries if they agreed to go marry settlers along the St. Lawrence, have as many French babies as possible, and generally act as a civilizing influence on the young colony), and I peppered him with questions about his adopted city. I asked if he had noticed the uniquely, to my mind, Quebecer habit of referring to North America as “the New World.” He had, and found it equally striking. In the way of a history professor and former historian, we batted around ideas about why that might be, all while tucking into plates of lost bread – French toast to you and me (so called either because it is made with bread that would otherwise go to waste or because to make it properly you need to let the bread really get lost down in the egg and milk mixture, depending on who you ask, and the restaurant‘s namesake). Mine all simple with plenty of maple syrup and his a savory version with cheese, topped with a poached egg, and served with a big pot of beer-braised ham and potatoes.

And before I knew it, it was time to grab my suitcase and hop in a cab to Pierre Trudeau airport to head west. I forewent my usual habit of decidedly not speaking to cab drivers in favor of getting in a last bit of French. He immigrated from Lebanon, loves Montréal, and seemed truly delighted that I – an American! – was so interested in food. He gave me his card. I am to call next I am in town. He knows some restaurants he thinks I would like.

In exchange for breakfast and a walking tour of the Plateau, I paid the price of an end-of-the-day flight home from parts east. I’ve done it before and I always manage to forget that particularly icky film that covers one after a long flight at the end of the day that lands late. I was feeling pretty sorry for myself until I walked into the gate area and saw the throngs of people waiting to get on the next flight, a red-eye to Guadalajara. From French-speaking Canada to Spanish-speaking California with U.S. customs in the Québec airport and a lay-over in Chicago in between; it was all very NAFTA.

I took a cab home. I was in no mood to talk about either the Giants or Sandy. But my cabbie was having none of my anti-social behavior. He started on the subject of the unseasonably warm weather and quickly shifted to politics, particularly the various “props” on the ballot in California. We agreed yes on 37 (labels those GMOs!) and that taking one’s absentee ballot to the polling place on Election Day makes it seem like more of an event. He and I moved to the same neighborhood at about the same time. I came to California to go to grad school. A Palestinian, he came to escape violence and oppression and make a better life for his family. He told me he enjoyed talking to me; I said I did too and wished him luck with the rest of his shift.

Montréal is a place where people will put rosemary in beer (bad idea Dieu de Ciel, although your trappist ale was fabuloso), pour warm maple syrup over creamy brie (Le Saint Bock you are clever!), and serve lamb tartare (Chez Victoire, vous me manquez déjà!). We may lack the obsession with maple syrup that our neighbors to the north embrace with such fervor, but Californians have, I’m quite sure, done all of those things at some point. We are a continent of immigration and invention, at our best when questioning tradition, not falling for “that’s how it’s always been” as a reason for anything, and open-minded about what else could be. The tour guide’s explanation of how French-Canadian sugar shacks are amalgams of Gallic, Celtic, and Anglo-Saxon traditions doesn’t capture it in any way that makes the phrase useful in a contemporary context, but two cabbies, three thousand miles and eleven hours apart, with their love of their new world and their desire to talk with a stranger about the things they love best about it sure did.

I know too much about history not to appreciate the right to vote. Ladies: it hasn’t even been a 100 years since our kind have had that right throughout the U.S. I’m going to be casting my ballot with the new world in mind: a place, slowly but surely, of opportunity and civil rights for everyone.

Then I’m going to come home and douse some cheese in maple syrup.

maple syrup

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Walnut cake with maple hard sauce

I never would have come up with this recipe if 1) some lovely walnut folks hadn’t sent me five pounds of fresh walnuts in the mail and 2) I hadn’t just gotten back from Quebec City.

I had walnuts to use and maple on the brain.

Walnut cake

While not health food, there isn’t much refined nonsense in this cake. It is part very moist nut torta and part cake-like date sticky pudding. Top is with whatever you want – ice cream, whipped cream, or, if you serve the cake warm, hard sauce or even maple hard sauce (see below). It would be a lovely change from all that Thanksgiving pie, you know?

1 1/2 cups walnuts

1 1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

12 pitted fresh dates

1 egg

3/4 cup pure maple syrup

1/2 cup walnut oil

1 tablespoon cider vinegar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 325. Spray a 10-inch cake pan (spring form is nice here) with oil, line the bottom with parchment paper, and spray the paper with oil.  You can also rub the pan/paper with oil if you don’t like the spray stuff.

Spread walnuts in a single layer on a baking sheet. Roast in the oven until just starting to color, about 10 minutes but watch them carefully and take them out early rather than risk burning them. Seriously, walnuts will burn while you take a moment to blink your eyes. Let walnuts cool before going to the next step.

In a food processor, pulse the flour, walnuts, baking soda, and salt until walnuts are fairly well pulverized. Transfer to a large bowl.

Pulse dates, egg, maple syrup, walnut oil, vinegar, and vanilla in the food processor until dates are chopped. Whirl until the mixture is puréed. Pour into flour mixture and stir to just combine. Pour batter into prepared pan and bake until a knife inserted in the center comes out almost clean – a few bits clinging to it are fine.

Let cake sit at least 10 minutes before you take it out of the pan. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Maple hard sauce

Cream 1/2 cup butter and 1 1/4 cup powdered sugar until light and fluffy. Add 1/4 cup maple syrup and 2 – 3 tablespoons whiskey or brandy. The addition of the liquid will make the lovely fluffiness you’ve made fall apart and separate and look a bit nasty. Keep beating it, it will all come together again, more or less. You can leave the maple syrup out for plain hard sauce (add another 1/4 cup sugar), or the whiskey/brandy out for just some maple-tinged yumminess that would also be good on a warm cake or, really, pretty much anything.

maple syrup

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