Chef Martin Picard’s Truly Canadian Pop-Up: Cabane à Sucre Au Pied de Cochon
Guestaurant had the pleasure of being guided around Montreal this past February by the notorious food adventurer — Quebec blogger The Sassy Foodophile. Sabrina Lu, aka The Sassy Foodophile, was one of the lucky few on the list for this year’s Cabane à Sucre Au Pied de Cochon 2-month pop-up. She brings us this story from Quebec at the height of the Canadian maple syrup season.
The arrival of spring has difference significances for all of us Canadians: some are excited to say bye to the gruesome winter, others are delighted to welcome the blossoming of flowers, warm temperature by the sweet caress of the sun and the melody of birds, while some are just brought back every year to their childhood memories of celebrating the arrival of SUGAR SHACK! Yes! Never-ending feasts of greasy good eats, sticky maple syrup and taffy all over your fingers and clothes, dancing arm in arm to the charming Quebecer music! Just pure joy and happiness!
Growing up, I had not given a thought to what’s behind this tradition. I was just a happy goer glad to stuff my face with this liquid gold for hours and then happily be paralyzed in a food coma for days. Now as a Food Scientist I have given a thought or two to the process behind this seasonal tradition. The whole maple syrup making is mind-blowingly interesting!
Though I am writing about this in April, the whole cycle of this wonderful and sticky liquid starts back in the summer. It is at this time when (primarily) maple trees, the Acer Saccharum specie, produce and store starch from the photosynthesis process. This starch then transforms into the delicious and sweet maple water during the freezing/thawing cycle of spring. Maple syrup therefore can only be produced in places that the temperature drops below 0C to allow this mechanism to activate. During night, the maple water freezes and it thaws as the temperatures increases at the rise of the sun. This thawing process allows the water inside the trunk and roots to expand causing the internal pressure to increase and be greater than the external pressure. This change of pressure acts as a pump for the maple water which helps the osmosis to move this delicacy out of the tree. Most sugar houses uses a gravity feel tubing system which runs downhill from the trees to the collecting barrel allowing the producers to collect the sap from several trees at once. At this point, the water usually has around 4% of sugar at the beginning of the season and around 1.8% of sugar at the end. The color is also significantly different through time; more pale at the beginning and of higher quality, and transitioning to a darker and poorer quality product. At the end of the season, when the temperature is too warm, the sugar is converted back to starch. Which gives us around one month to maximize the sugaring off season!
The maple water then goes through an evaporator which not only evaporates the water out of the maple water (which contains 77% water) but also concentrates the sugar content while giving it this sinful aroma and color through the caramelization process. The temperature at which the liquid will boil indicates the concentration of sugar left; typically, to obtain maple syrup, the liquid needs to boil at 104C. This also means that the maple water has been concentrated to 66% of sugar and 33% of water. Other derivatives of maple syrup can also be made with different sugar concentration such as
88% and more
It takes 40 liters of maple water to produce 1 liter of maple syrup which can explain the cost of these products. Although maple syrup can be made across different regions, Quebec is the largest producer in the world generating 70% of the production. This liquid gold not only seduces the taste buds because of its great versatility in use and of all the yummy by-products it can be made of, but also because of its distinctive taste that is composed of over 300 aroma compounds. Often, industries uses fenugreek as a substitute to reproduce this flavor in larger applications to save money.
Thus, if you ever have to chance to be in Quebec, Canada, during the month of March and April, do make the effort to make a visit at a traditionnal sugar shack to fully experience the vibe and spirit of typical Quebecer meal. Waiters in lumberjack style plaid shirts will welcome you into a wooden shack filled with long tables where the meal are shared in groups of friends or strangers. Usually in a all you can eat formula, pots and big dishes are brought to the middle of table along with sides such as marinated beets, pickles, onions and fruit ketchup. Typical dishes includes mini hot dog sausages cooked in maple syrup, omelet with maple ham, oreille de crisse (deep fried pork jowls), beans, meat pie, and an array of maple desserts. And of course, the experience will not be completed without the joy of eating maple taffy. The maple syrup is boiled to the concentration of 83-86% sugar and then poured on tapped snow. After allowing to cool, you pick it up with a popsicle stick and roll the taffy around it making sure to tap it as much as possible on the snow to allow the taffy to solidify. It makes a gooey mess which will most likely find its way in your hair and shirt but my oh my, it is a pure delight!!!
Of course, with the ever so growing culinary adventurers in Quebec, the sugar shack inevitably went through a makeover through the magical hands of some wild chefs. From my past posts on surprising and unexpected sugar shack meals (here and here), I thought I’ve tasted it all and that it couldn’t get any crazier! Little did I know what Martin Picard, the owner of the restaurant Au Pied de Cochon, was about to get us into once more — the most intense, unimaginable, but oh so worth it, food coma!
First, you must understand that in order to get a place at the 2-month only pop-up La Cabane à Sucre Au Pied de Cochon, you must email the team on December 1st — so set your phone reminder now. Otherwise, good luck on trying his dishes. Martin Picard has won numerous awards over the last few years, and is considered a culinary legend in Quebec.
Located around 1-hour from Montreal, at Mirabel, the pop-up La Cabane à Sucre Au Pied de Cochon looks like any traditional sugar shack from the outside. However, they do have their own smoker which already gives us an idea of how awesome the meal will be. As soon as you enter, you sense excitement in the air. Home-made maple products such as marshmallows, cotton candy, meat pie and more can be brought back home. They also had the latest book from Martin Picard where the famous Squirrel Sushi and Confederation Beaver recipe can be found.
The waitress welcomes us and start rolling out what is waiting for us: 3 appetizers, 4 main courses, 6 desserts and if we want, a meat pie. Hello! Of course we want the meat pie! We prepare ourselves for this meal by unbutonning our pants to allow more space and drinking as less water or beer as possible… here we go:
1. Pickled herring with maple syrup, potatoes, pickled onions, maple mayonnaise:
I was surprised at how flavorful this dish was. The herrings had a touch of acidity and was wonderfully paired with the sweetness of the maple syrup. The potatoes are sliced paper thin and added an interesting texture with the onions.
2. Terrine: veal brain, sweetbreads, tongue, blood pudding, foie gras, goat cheese, endives salad, blinis:
This dish was absolutely fabulous! A mix of various organs such as veal brain, sweetbreads, tongue along with blood pudding and foie gras all shaped into a terrine. Seriously, we felt like we were going for a treasure hunt, finding a different piece every time we dug into it! It was bursting out of flavor and the foie gras binded beautifully the meat together while adding this liver taste to it. And the spices in the blood pudding was simply spot on. It was served with a goat cream cheese which was unctuous and rich. Served on the blinis, the terrine and the cheese was a mouthful of heaven. The endives salad cuts through the fat with its slight bitterness.
3. Sturgeon fried cake: Fried sturgeon, oreille de crisse, gold leaf, soya sweet sauce:
A work of art! Nothing less can describes this dish! Wonderfully layered, sushi rice, fried sturgeon, incredibly crispy oreille de crisse, and to amp up the luxury of it, a layer of gold leaves! Ha! That ‘sushi’ was so damn crunchy and the addition of their sweet creamy soya sauce made it oh so delighful! People on the table were just fighting over these morsels of deliciousness.
4. Home-made meat pie and ketchup:
The meat pie was an option. For 20$, you could add it to your meal and guys, trust me it is so worth it. First, it is huge! Thus, you can easily separate it throughout your table and end up only paying 2$ the piece. Second, it is really really the best meat pie I have ever tasted. The crust is ever so flaky and buttery… ahhhh… And the meat! — you literally have chunks of meat! Not just potatoes like the store bought ones! Flavored with spices and herbs, every bite bursts of flavor and is only enhanced with the addition of the sweet and tangy ketchup.
5. Souffléed omelet with lobster and maple smoked meat and cream cheese:
A repeat from last year’s omelet but with an added bonus! Montreal’s well known smoked meat! A light and fluffy omelet with a touch of creaminess from the cheese, crowned with the head of the lobster, was an absolute show stopper. Big pieces of tender and sweet lobster mingled with smoked and salty smoked meat complemented this once traditional dish of sugar shack. Although very grandiose, it wasn’t my favorite as I found it too salty.
6. Foie gras vol au vent, Victor and Berthold cheese, béchamel sauce, oreille de crisse, apples, watercress salad:
At first glance, you would have thought, uh! A salad?!? Oh no! Foie gras lovers beware! There were three whole lobes of foie gras hidden inside the flakiest vol au vent pastry! Although there was watercress and apples to cut through the culpability most of us felt at this point, the combination of the generous amount of foie gras and the smooth and creamy bechamel sauce with the cheese was just downright sinfully decadent. And of course, they had to top it off with the oreille de crisse! But seriously, they are not joking when it comes to foie gras! Wow! My liver became fatty at this exact moment.
7. Baked beans, cottage cheese, smoked duck:
Again, a moment of déjà vu from last year’s meal but again, they never fail to surprise us. Served in a beautiful pot, the beans were topped with a dollop of cottage cheese. Hidden beneath were drumsticks of duck smoked and tender to the fork! All of us only noticed it at the end, and to my delight, they’ve let me take it home with me!
8. BBQ pork belly and piglet buttocks from Gaspor farm, cabbage and potatoes, spaetzel:
This Gaspor baby is just so incredibly tender on the inside and crunchy as hell on the outside!!! Oh gosh! Glistening from the maple syrup, this pork redefined bacon. The slabs of pork belly were simply the epiphany of bacon. Although some found it way too fatty and greasy, combined with the cabbage and spaetzel (crispy strips of dough), it just did wonders to my mouth.
9. Roasted duck breast in maple syrup, onion rings in duck fat:
With a big knife right in the breast of the duck, it made a statement by itself. I considered it as the Wild Chef’s version of Pekin duck. Light and crispy skin with a fork tender meat, this dish was fun to deconstruct with the knife and made my taste buds really happy. The onions rings on the other hand absorbed a little too much of the duck fat and taste nothing but fat unfortunately.
10. Maple and skor blizzard, maple taffy an maple mini cones:
Although my body probably wanted to kill me inside out, I just could not resist this dessert! As weird as it might sounds, the cold ice cream just made me feel so good. Maple and ice cream is the most perfect marriage of flavor there is, and Skor, the caramelized crunchy butter toffee from Hershey, made it the triangle of awesomeness! And they smartly added sticks of taffy on the ice cream which acted as snow. Maple taffy + maple ice cream + skor = foodgasm. Nothing less. It was served in a frozen glass that was resting perfectly on a wood log in which little holes were shaped to fit mini cones of maple desserts. These latter were filled very sticky maple candy topped with maple marshmallow. Pillows of heaven.
11. Maple ‘Cinnabuns’:
Although I am not the biggest fan of cinnamon, this ‘cinnabun’ was really soft and tender and the maple butter on top made it wonderfully sticky.
12. Pancakes fried in duck fat:
Light and fluffy, these pancakes are quite an experience! They fried them in duck fat giving them a crisp and golden exterior, drench those babies in maple syrup and you are one step closer to nirvana.
13. Maple éclairs with maple cotton candy:
Their maple cotton candy is a significant upgrade to those artificially flavored ones we used to have in amusement parks. Adorning beautifully the éclairs which were filled with maple cream, it was the perfect end to a perfect meal.
Although you will be in a food coma for the following week, I guarantee you that this is one of the most worthy meals you can get! $57 (£36) for 12 courses which included foie gras, lobster and duck?!? It is a steal! The best thing from this sugar shack is that they allow doggy bags! Thus, no waste and happy breakfast in the morning.
Either in a traditional sugar shack meal or an extravagant version from Martin Picard’s pop-up, Quebec really offers us its most wonderful treasure — our chefs and sugar houses are cooking it the best way there is. Hats off to the liquid gold of Quebec! Have a good sugaring off season peeps!
- Roasted duck breast in maple syrup, onion rings in duck fat
Details for the 2-month pop-up Cabane à sucre Au Pied de Cochon-
http://cabaneasucreaupieddecochon.com Photo credits – Stephane Brennan – www.avosmoleculescuisinez.com