The delicious decisions made by the happy global confrérie of extreme pig lovers preaching the gospel of nose-to-tail porkFergus Henderson, Mario Batali, Tony Bourdain, and Chris Cosentino come to mindhave gotten an awful lot of us paying sublime prices for cuts of meat that butchers couldn’t give away even a few years ago. Co-conspirator Martin Picard, the brotherhood’s Canadian affiliate, has been singing offal’s praises for nigh on six years since opening Montreal’s iconoclastic Au Pied de Cochon. After cyclone stints in some of France and Canada’s most impressive, highfalutin' kitchens, Picard threw caution (never a strong suit) to the wind, and began serving up the bouffe that most turns him ondeer tongues preserved in vinegar, brain omelets, and stomachs stuffed with whelks, ground pork, lobster, whateverto critical acclaim. Everything he makes tastes as good as it sounds disgusting.
Au Pied de Cochon operates as a kind of commune, taking in artists, cooks, and the variously offbeat. In the span of two years' worth of Mondays, while the restaurant was closed and the kitchen pickled and preserved, Martin and sidekicks put together and self-published a cookbook-cum-scrapbook that almost audibly shames the other glossy restaurant cookbooks on my shelf into revealing themselves as the purely PR-driven paeans many of them are. If this cookbook could talk, it’d say, belligerently, "You drink far too little and much too slowly," Picard's exact words to me during my valiant but failed attempt to stay sober enough to interview him a few weeks ago. The man’s intensity is almost autistic; his fierce, beady black eyes tear into whatever they meet like iron bores, the mighty electric field he emits made manifest by the nest of curly hair that frames his face like a mischievous aureole.
The French version of the Au Pied de Cochon cookbook debuts with a 50-page graphic novel before launching into elaborate recipes that each seem to take about three days of uninterrupted labor to produce: pig’s foot stuffed with foie gras, for example, in which the meat inside the foot is disassembled, cubed and cooked in pork fat, stuffed back into the foot, wrapped in a boxing bandage, cooked for eight hours, and served hot under a lobe of seared foie gras. Or bines et boulettes, a beans-and-meatballs recipe that involves incising the skulls of two pigs, dripping cold water through the head for three hours until the brains are dislodged, poaching these, and then pressing the ears for 12 hours, dehydrating them for six more, and finally frying them in pork fat before serving them with the tongue, head meat, diced skin, meatballs, and beans, all of which have also undergone elaborate transformations. Whew. Just thinking about it exhausts.
In the ultimate in backwards opulence, Picard knocks foie gras off the bijou pedestal it currently enjoys and treats it as just another piece of offal. Most recipes in the book call for about a pound of it, whether stuffed into pig’s tails or unceremoniously chucked into tin cans otherwise filled with duck parts and boiled for exactly 27 minutes.
Behind a man so animalistic that first sight of him brings a wild boar to mind are some solid intellectual pillars: imagination, curiosity, a thoughtfulness and whimsy that surpriseand an unshakeable, nearly pathological obsession with pork, fat, and engorged goose liver. Then you remember that before he went feral, he cooked in Alsace and Lot-et-Garonne (in Michelin-starred restaurants, natch), and it all starts to make sense.
Picard’s cookbook makes for vigorous reading that whets the appetite and stimulates the intellect. No one at Au Pied de Cochon drinks too little or slowly, but that’s what makes them so much fun.
The book can be ordered from the publisher’s website, archambault.ca
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