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Neal Livingston's Black River Maple Syrup Earns Rarely Awarded Notebook Seal Of Approval
By Andrew Macdonald, The Macdonald Notebook - HFX and NS news coverage.

April 10th, 2020

In the four-year history of The Macdonald Notebook, its Seal of Approval has only been granted three times to Nova Scotian food products, but that changes today.

The Seal of Approval was earlier awarded to Monte Snow’s fish emporium Fisherman’s Market for his smoked salmon, produced at his Bedford HWY retail and wholesale emporium.

It also went to That Dutchman’s Cheese - Dragon’s Breath, served to visiting British Royals and made in Economy in Cumberland County, and to the Haskapa juice company of Mahone Bay, which went out of business in 2019.

So today, The Notebook is proud to bestow our rarely deployed Seal of Approval on what I think is Nova Scotia's finest maple syrup, Black River Maple Syrup, produced by Neal Livingston at his operation in the wilds of Mabou, Cape Breton.

It has to be the best of the best.

“I am between Mabou and Inverness near the distillery, so I say Mabou/Inverness area, and my watercourse is part of the Margaree watershed," Livingston tells The Notebook.

For my robust metro Halifax readers, this product is available at Quinpool Road’s health food store, Organic Earth. And for my strong readership in Antigonish-Port Hawkesbury, you can buy the just made 2020 version at the Sobeys stores in Port Hawkesbury as well as all other Sobeys outlets on Cape Breton Island.


As well Halifax Northend Lebanese inspired Mid-East food store on North Street also retails the Mabou made maple syrup.

If those locations do not work for you, Livingston will ship the product by courier. He uses Chester business titan Carl Potter’s delivery entity, MBW Courier.

The other day, I ordered four one-litre bottles, and it was delivered to my rural Nova Scotia doorstep. I ended up giving a bottle away to a coveted Notebook reader.

In February, I featured the story behind Livingston’s maple bush operation, just as he was going out to tap the trees in Inverness County.

While there are many great maple producers in Nova Scotia, the thing that sets Livingston’s operation apart is that his boils his sap over a maple wood fire so his product has a definitive woody taste.

My mother, who grew up in a sustenance farm in Leitches Creek near North Sydney reports her father would make his own syrup, and he also did it the old fashioned way with wood fuel.

And having had some of Livingston’s product, it brought her back to the days when her parents also used maple wood to boil the sap in a farm.

In case you missed that February article on Livingston’s Black Maple Syrup, here is the background on his charming and quintessential Cape Breton entity:

If you want to up your game when it comes to health, one slight modification is to change your daily spoonful of sugar in your coffee or on your porridge or cereal to a spoonful of Nova Scotia-produced maple syrup.

If you want to up your game when it comes to health, one slight modification is to change your daily spoonful of sugar in your coffee or on your porridge or cereal to a spoonful of Nova Scotia-produced maple syrup.

“There’s some fascinating research going on with regard to something which is 66.7 percent sugar,” says Neal Livingston, owner of Black River Maple Products in Mabou. “And coffee is super good when it’s combined with maple syrup.”

The facts speak for themselves. An extensive study by the International Maple Syrup Institute states, “Health benefits of real maple syrup are far more comprehensive than you might expect. The only product in our diet coming directly from a plant’s sap, this natural sweetener features over 54 antioxidants that can help delay or prevent diseases caused by free radicals, such as cancer or diabetes. In addition, maple syrup features high levels of zinc and manganese, keeping the heart healthy and boosting the immune system.”

The study also highlights that maple syrup “delivers more overall nutritional value than many common sweeteners and has one of the lowest-calorie levels. Pure maple syrup provides enhanced antioxidant levels compared to other common and popular foods, such as apples and broccoli. Pure maple syrup may have other health benefits that are currently being studied."


For his part, Livingston has been producing maple syrup in Mabou since 1985. The company’s label proudly proclaims it as 'Cape Breton Maple Syrup', and currently it’s available at Organic Earth on Quinpool Road for $35.99/litre, $21.99/500 ml, and $10.99/250 ml.

“It originated with a forestry management plan in 1980,” he says. “We couldn’t do traditional forestry on our property, so the forester suggested we use the maple trees on the property, so we did a test run in 1984 and opened the next year. We have the steepest maple syrup operation in North America, with slopes on our property that range from 45 to 75 degrees.”

With most of the 50 members of the Maple Producers Association of Nova Scotia located on the mainland, primarily in Cumberland and Colchester counties, with some representation from the Valley and South Shore, the ‘terroir’ in Cape Breton, with three maple syrup producers, produces syrup with a slightly different taste.

“People like our syrup because it is wood-fired and comes completely from our stand. It’s not blended with syrup from other producers,” Livingston says.

The sap for the syrup comes from 4,000 taps in his stand, fed through 30 kilometres of pipeline. He uses a reverse osmosis process coupled with quarter-inch spigots which are designed to do less harm to the tree than larger ones. The system he uses is energy efficient and takes 80 percent of the water out of the sap so there is less boiling to produce the final product.

A few years ago, Livingston was at a crossroads in the business, trying to make the decision whether to ease out (he’s now 64) or invest in the property to make it more efficient and economical. He made the second choice and has invested in energy-efficient technology. He says he has a number of friends in the much larger Quebec maple syrup industry and keeps in touch with them on the latest and greatest industry trends.

“I was one of the first to install an electronic monitoring system on my lines,” he says. “It’s smart technology which tells you where lines break. This is our sixth year using it and it’s really helped us, especially with our steep terrain to enable us to tighten up the lines. We have 20,000 fittings in the operation and keeping on top of them and replacing them when needed is a real-time consumer. We also have a better handle on where the taps are leaking.

"As a result of this system, we are producing three times the amount of syrup we were six years ago with the same number of taps.”

Mother Nature is his constant companion, living as he does in the snow belt that comes up along the Northumberland Strait, crosses the western side of Cape Breton and then heads to Newfoundland. As a result, starting the process is usually a little later than on the mainland.

“I keep watching the weather and they’re enjoying temperatures of four, five and six degrees while my thermometer is reading zero,” he says.


"We wanted to start this week, but we had snow and then rain so things have been put off for a few days. Nobody wants to be out working in the woods for eight to 12 hours in the pouring rain.”

In terms of maple syrup production, Nova Scotia is number four in Canada behind Quebec, Ontario, and New Brunswick and, according to the Maple Producers Association of Nova Scotia, this province produces one percent of the national yield. The association reports that, in 2017, 57,000 gallons were produced by just less than 200 producers, with a roughly $4 million gross value and slightly over export value of just over $500,000.

In 2008 Neal was named Woodlot Owner of the Year – Eastern Nova Scotia.


Livingston was the first landowner on Cape Breton Island to have his woodlot eco-certified and has certified lumber for sale from his woodlot, though he no longer has the woodlot certified from lack of local market interest in certified products.

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