Quebec is a cold place, and during the winter, over-indulgence in heavy foods becomes something of a coping mechanism. But the province isn't just silky fats and meats, and from within the snowy cocoon of winter emerges one of the world's most mouthwatering natural sweeteners: maple syrup.
Early March marks the beginning of sap season, and once the fields of maple trees are tapped, the province celebrates by opening the doors of the numerous family-owned cabanes à sucre, or sugar shacks, that dot the countryside. While most cabanes à sucre specialize in greasy, maple syrup-doused breakfasts, there is one sugar shack that has a slightly different pedigree.
In 2009, chef Martin Picard—the owner of Montreal restaurant Au Pied de Cochon —retreated from the frenzied pace of his city restaurant and built a cabane à sucre in the Mirabel countryside, nearly an hour's drive outside Montreal.
Au Pied de Cochon's outrageous proclivity for foie gras, truffles, and pork has made a seat at their restaurant one of the most coveted in the city, and it's nearly impossible to get a reservation at its rustic sugar shack.
I arrived at Martin Picard's compound shortly after nightfall, and took my place at one of the long wooden banquet tables that line the dining hall. Immediately, the food began streaming out. A shallow stack of nutty buckwheat blinis were heaped alongside sturgeon smoked in maple syrup, spread out like a deck of cards. Chopped herbs, slim crescents of onion, and a puddle of crème fraiche completed the simple dish.
Pied de Cochon is notoriously vegetable-leery, but their leafy reticence resulted one of the most memorable dishes of the evening: crunchy fronds of baby Romaine lettuce, fat cubes of sharp cheddar and salty ham, toasted walnuts, and undulating curls of feather-light oreilles de crises, or pork rinds, all heavily coated in a maple-syrup-infused dressing that I suspect contained both lard and butter. "This is a salad made by someone who hates salad," one of my dining companions remarked.
A persimmon-colored Le Crueset pot brimmed over with a traditional French-Canadian soupe aux pois, or yellow pea soup, swimming with morsels of salt pork and swirls of maple syrup. Smoky, rich, and faintly sweet, Picard's peasant soup was spiked with pods of melted foie gras, Pied de Cochon's signature debauched flourish.
Oysters, nestled in a bed of sea salt, arrived on a thick cross-section of a tree. A dozen St. Simon oysters, shipped from New Brunswick earlier that morning, were topped with gleaming pearls of "seawater jelly," a briny gelée of garlic, lime, and maple syrup. The chilly, oceanic rush of flavor was bracing.
A flaky, golden tourtière, a traditional Quebec meat pie, ceremoniously arrived on yet another log platter. The pie's buttery crust had a hint of maple sweetness, its innards overflowing with braised pork shoulder and ground pork. Thick wedges of pie were served with a tart relish of minced marinated vegetables, which cut sharply though the tourtière's richness.
The meal marched on, though I was already beset with an uncomfortably tight feeling in my gut. We already had finished a magnum of Chamonard's 2009 Morgon (fruity Gamay is the ideal pairing for sugar shack cuisine), and were just beginning a delicious Marsannay from Méo-Camuzet, when our server arrived with a cornflower blue skillet, an intact lobster head peering over the edge. The souffléd omelet was swathed in whole lobster claws (which were sadly overcooked), "melted potatoes" poached in maple syrup, chopped scallions, and gobs of pure pork fat the size of marbles.
Plates of molten maki sushi, bulging with fleshy salmon and luscious pork creton, were individually deep-fried and served with a dish of thick maple and soy dipping sauce. I'm not sure why the salmon was there; the fresh, milky fish was completely indistinguishable under the cloak of the creamy pate. Pied de Cochon manages to corrupt even the most healthful aspects of Japanese cuisine.
So much for the appetizers. A pair of roasted Cornish game hens— heads and feet splayed in all directions—glistened with beads of fat and maple syrup, as a heap of seared gnocchi was tucked beneath the undercarriage. I plucked a single gnocchi out of the pan, and bit down to a velvety, fatty surprise. Some of the "gnocchi" were actually foie gras interlopers, mixed in with the pillowy pasta. It was a sumptuous, sneaky, and classic Picard touch, though I preferred the clean, familiar finish of the hens.
A massive pig's leg—coated with a black slick of fat resembling, perhaps disturbingly, a pool of motor oil—presided over a mound of parsley-dusted, sugared carrots and parsnips. Peeling back the thick, rubbery skin revealed an astonishingly tender and rosy slab of milk-fed pork, half-smoked and half-barbecued.
Both meats paired well with a tannic Barbera D'Alba from Roagna, as well as feves au lard, a Quebec baked bean dish often cooked in maple syrup. Pied de Cochon's iteration overflowed out of a tin can, and was laced with cottage cheese, bacon, and a slip of olive oil. It was the most magical campfire experience I've ever had.
Sated beyond belief, but eager for dessert, I took a brief break from the dining table for a walk in the snowy forest. When I sat back down at the table, four desserts were leering up at me: a sticky, maple-syrup sauced tarte tatin; a mountain of vanilla ice cream studded with candied maple syrup, topped with a shell of milk chocolate, chopped nuts, and a hazy cloud of maple syrup cotton candy;crêpes Grand-Mère, or discs of dough deep fried in duck fat, and coated with a glaze of maple syrup; and my favorite, Quebec maple syrup "taffy," or tire d'érable. Boiling maple syrup is poured into strips on a fresh plate of snow, eventually hardening into a chewy, warm taffy. It was playful, sticky finale to one of the most outrageous dining experiences imaginable in the dead of winter.
About the Author: Natasha Li Pickowicz is a San Diego-born music and food writer, and a recent Montreal transplant. In addition to updating her food blog Popcorn Plays, she contributes to a number of music publications. She also curates experimental music concerts as Popcorn Youth, and is the baker at Dépanneur le Pick-Up, a popular restaurant in Montreal. She loves Richard Olney, Cabernet Franc, Ina Garten, pizza, and goose fat.