Sugar sauce from the trees of Canada

A taste of... sweetness. Nikki Spencer enjoys a spoonful of maple syrup
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Spring is in the air, and the sap is rising in the deciduous forests of Canada, which account for 80 per cent of the world's production of maple syrup. Over the next few weeks local families and a growing number of tourists will head off into the "bush" to sample this year's harvest of maple syrup at sugar shacks dotted throughout the Maple Belt, the hardwood forest that stretches from the midwestern US through Ontario, Quebec and New England and into the Canadian Maritimes.

Seated at long trestle tables, visitors can feast on smoked bacon, sausages and crepes, all laced with the newly produced maple syrup. Afterwards it is traditional to head outside and toss a batch of thick, boiled syrup into the snow, where it provides instant toffee for the children.

The sweet sap of the sugar maple was known and valued by the native people of North America long before European settlers arrived. An Iroquois legend tells of the use of "sweet water" to cook venison.

The sap is collected by simply boring holes in the trees. As pressure increases with changes in temperature, the sap rises and is collected in a cup attached to the trunk. This method, though, is being replaced in some areas by a vacuum tubing system.

The process is said not to harm the trees. The holes soon heal over, and producers claim that you can tap a tree every year for 100 years without harming it. A good tree produces 12-16 gallons of sap over the tapping period, which sounds a lot - but it takes a good 35 gallons to make just one gallon of syrup. In the sugar house the sap is boiled down in open vats, and it is then filtered and bottled for distribution - mainly to America, but increasingly world-wide.

This winter's ice storms have caused concern to the sugar producers. Some maple trees have had branches broken off; others have split. The full extent of the damage won't be known until the harvest is over.

For a taste of maple syrup

One of the most famous sugar shacks is the Sucrerie de la Montagne, 300 Rang St-George, Rigaud, Quebec JOP IPO (00 1 514 451 5204), open all year round. For details of other shacks (which tend to open for about six weeks in March and April) contact Destination Quebec (0990 561 705).

Maple syrup can be bought in most supermarkets. There are three grades: dark, medium and light. The lighter-coloured syrup has the most delicate flavour and is best for waffles, pancakes and ice-cream. Dark maple syrup is used for cooking.

For a taste of home-cooked Canada, the Maple Leaf, 41 Maiden Lane, London WC2 (0171-240 2843) is a favourite with expats. As well as traditional pancakes with maple syrup, on "wing night" - Monday - they serve fried chicken wings in three flavours: mild, hot, and suicide. Ice hockey videos are flown in regularly from Canada.