I’m holding a sticky, irresistible tire sur al neige (maple taffy) lollipop cooled from its twirl in the snow. They say that smell is the sense most closely related to memory, but the moment I taste this nature-made treat, I’m transported back to Quebec’s cabanes à sucres (sugar shacks).
With the preferred treat of maple syrup festivals in my hand, I enter the gazebo where a lively fiddle and accordion band plays traditional Québécois music. My foot taps to the infectious beat, welcoming me into the warmth of French Canadian culture at the Carnaval St. Isidore festival in northern Alberta.
Many of the 300 residents in this hamlet 500 km (311 mi) northwest of Edmonton are descended from 10 Québécois families who established the community in the 1950s. Carnaval was created to help preserve and celebrate the distinct French Canadian culture they helped cultivate in northern Alberta. Over the years Carnaval has gained popularity, with its line-up of traditional and world beat live music now a not-to-be-missed event.
Carnival Food and Festivities
Running two days on the third weekend of February, St. Isidore’s festival features log sawing, hockey, hayrides, dance performances, annual theme-inspired costumes, a snow sculpting competition and a delectable French Canadian feast. Here, the locals’ culinary talents shine with tourtière (meat pie), pattes de lynx (a long flat doughnut dusted with cinnamon and sugar), poutine (French fries with gravy and cheese curds) and maple syrup imported from Québec’s legendary trees.
I grab a mug of caribou – a spirited concoction of brandy, vodka, sherry and port synonymous with Québec City’s renowned Carnaval – and head towards the cheery bonfire. Closing my eyes, I almost feel as if I’ve travelled back to the time of fur traders, voyageurs and their native guides – the very roots of western Canada.
Sugar Shacks around Alberta
St. Isidore’s Carnaval is not Alberta’s only Québécois-inspired festival. La Cabane à Sucre du Nord (Northern Sugarshack) has run in Bonnyville for decades. Taking place in March at a local farm, the one-day event features live traditional music and the irresistible tire sur la neige.
Grande Prairie’s one-day Festival de la Cabane à Sucre pulls in as many as 2,000 visitors from across the region. Hosted in February at Muskoseepi Park Pavilion, the family-friendly occasion includes sleigh rides, ice skating on a frozen pond, traditional French-Canadian music and poutine et tourtière.
Calgary also hosts a Maple Festival des Sucres in April, featuring Métis, Franco-Canadian and African artisans displaying their creations. There’s also a children’s workshop, walking tour through the former French community of Rouleauville and great tastings, from French Canadian-style pea soup and poutine, to maple syrup-slathered pancakes and maple taffy on snow.