APRIL favored us with another annual visitation to the maples of Beauce, up in Quebec, and while the usual hearty high jinks accrued, this was our poorest harvest. The season was unpropitious for the proper run of sweet sap, and the day we went to the sugar-party at ``le cabane Bolduc'' the evaporator was cold. No sweet, sticky steam in the air - for three days the sap hadn't performed and the holding tank was empty. Carmelle, our hostess, used the word ``catastrophique!''
Quebec's County Beauce is next above Maine, so it's no great jaunt for us to arrive all eager for the traditional festivities of the region. In ``the season of sugar,'' everybody in La Beauce becomes a sucrier - a sugarer. And there are rites to respect; everybody in La Beauce does his part. Everything there flows from and leads to the sugar season.
The esteemed savants of the French Academy would probably deplore some of Beauce language-isms; the county has its own little dictionary, and most of words that relate to the maple season are - well, are Beauce.
In Yankeeland, we put ``spiles'' in the maple tap holes: In Beauce they use andouilles, and then make a verb, andouiller. Except that often they speak of goudrelles and goudrilles. Same thing. Tap holes are bored with a portable power tool that sounds like a chain saw. Pierre-Marie Bolduc, our sugar host, told me years ago, ``I'm just a small operator - I put out only 2,400 pails.''
We stay each April at the Hotel Benedict Arnold at St. Georges, Beauce. Times enough so the proprietor, M. LaPierre, greets us by name and says, ``Votre chambre est pr^ete,'' and then he says, ``Welcome to the sugars!''
M. LaPierre speaks fondly of ``M. le G'en'eral,'' and doesn't share any of the disrespect that United States (as taught) history accords Benedict Arnold. In 1775, Benedict Arnold led his struggling and straggling army toward Quebec City; they passed in bateaux down the churning Chaudi`ere River, which swirls directly through La Beauce and in front of M. LaPierre's inn.
Arnold now met the first people he had seen since he left Maine. Peaceful in their isolation, Les Beaucerons were presumably neutral, but they recognized that if the dirty British could be dislodged, there would be no great grief in La Beauce. They were kind to Arnold, fed his men, and offered shelter.
M. LaPierre likes to tell tourists some of these things as he welcomes them to his incomparable hospitality and finds them a table in his Benedict Arnold Dining Room. He explains that M. le G'en'eral Arn-NOLD was grossly abused by the good George Washington, and deserves a better history. The lamb chops, he suggests, are a specialty.
The sugar parties are going on all over La Beauce. Many sugarers open their cabanes to paying guests - so much a head for a frolic in the sucrerie with music and dancing and the formidable sugar-house feast that ends out by a snowbank with sugar-on-snow. It has been our treat over the years to bring lobsters, but in more recent years we take scallops - there is always an amusing moment at the boundary when the Canadian customs officer asks if we have anything we plan to leave in Canada.
If you're interested, the French word for lobster is homard, and for scallop it is p'etoncle. The customs officer always drools a mite, smiles, and says, ``Have a good trip!'' It hasn't failed yet, and we think our Canadian friends like scallops as much as they do lobsters. If you've never eaten scallops with a maple flavor, you should.
Other things flavored with maple are the pancakes, then the baked potatoes, the hot bread, the ham or shoulder stewed in a pot, the baked beans du pays, and the incredible ``ears of Christ.'' Les oreilles de Christ. Our host says there is no impiety or disrespect in this whatever; he thinks it was originally a term meant by the devout pioneers to add a touch of Faith to the gathering.
Slices are cut from a slab of salt pork and fried almost to a crisp. The salty morsel is meant to counteract the overpowering sweetness of maple syrup and maple sugar; sour pickles are used the same way. As the slices of salt pork fry in the pan, they curl in a manner that suggests the shape of a human ear. Old-time Beauce people, says Pierre-Marie, would not make light of such a metaphor - the ears are standard in every sugar house in La Beauce. They are also delicious.
I had a pleasant conversation with a gentleman who was a brother-in-law to somebody, and as he chewed his sugar-on-snow he asked if I'd written any book in French. I said I had not. He said he hoped I would, because he would like to read it. Another high spot on this trip was a curling match on Canadian TV. Manitoba beat British Columbia.