Cabin fever: Why do people queue to eat at a snowy Canadian cabin?
There is a wooden house in the middle of Canada’s snowy countryside where food of such sublime richness is served that getting a table there is more difficult than at a Michelin-starred city restaurant. Marina O’Loughlin is beguiled by the Cabane à Sucre.
Saturday 17 November 2012
There's a handsome young chap wading through the snowdrifts dressed in a raccoon hat, complete with furry, ringed tail. I didn't know these existed outside Hanna-Barbera cartoons. He's headed for the campervan-sized smoker/ barbecue, painted a jaunty red, that sits outside the low-slung, snow-frosted wooden building. He peels back its vast canopy to reveal rows of ducks and about a dozen or so piglets, deconstructed so that their bellies sit below their heads.
Curiously, their burnished mushes appear to be grinning, the happiest decapitated porkers I've ever seen. But that's maybe because they've lived privileged lives here at the Pied de Cochon Cabane à Sucre, snuffling among the trees, fattened on litres of some of the finest maple syrup in the world. They died drunk on sweetness: a feeling with which we're about to become very familiar.
This whole cabane à sucre – aka sugar shack – tradition is entirely specific to its Quebec terroir. But it's as alluring and irresistible as tire sur la neige: ribbons of hard-boiled maple sap trickled over snow until they turn into gooey, chewy lollipops. The shacks first started appearing at the start of the 19th century, dedicated to the short season of 'sugaring off' in a province that produces more than three-quarters of the world's maple syrup. Back then, producers would throw open their kitchens to the labourers who had stoked up an appetite by manually tapping the trees of their precious sap and transporting it back in buckets, through waist-deep drifts of snow. These days, diners are locals in for a mammoth feed: for Québécois, it's every bit as much a family tradition as Christmas or Thanksgiving.
The sugar shack menu has never been a sophisticated one; it's the food of trappers and manual workers. If a dish can feature maple sweetness in its DNA, then it will: thick split-pea soup, rammed with maple-cured ham hock; baked maple beans; sweet, fruity ketchups; a rough, unevolved pork pâté called cretons; tourtière: a stout meat pie; oreilles de crisse – 'Christ's ears': like chicharrón, puffy fried pork rinds, yes, often doused in syrup, as are rough, country-style sausages; pancakes; pickled beets; fat, oven-baked omelettes with various stuffings. All topped off by sugar pie, an almost unbearably sweet tart made with syrup and cream. Delicate, it ain't.
There are about 200 of these rustic, maple-punting outfits in Quebec. But, in 2008, when one of Montreal's favourite sons, chef Martin Picard, got a hold of the tradition and bent it to his own subversive will, the sugar shack got more than just a shake-up. Picard may not be anything like a household name over here, but in Canada he's a legend. On his TV show, Wild Chef, he shambles about the wintry Quebec landscape like a genial, eccentric grizzly in search of its native food.
Montreal's foodie reputation has been growing steadily and is now firmly on the gastro-tourist map. But it's a relatively new scene, and when Picard opened the original Au Pied de Cochon in 2001, his off-strip restaurant created waves of Richter-scale proportions. He orchestrated a nightly party of delicious, raucous excess: reinventions of Québécois trash-food hero poutine (fries, gravy, cheese curds) with lobes of foie gras dolloped on top and doused in foie sauce. (If he can put foie in it he will, and like his chum Anthony Bourdain – who has said of Au Pied de Cochon that it's "defiantly transgressive" and "one of my very favourites in the world" – has no truck with the goose-liver deniers.) Or whole pig's heads stuffed with lobster; or duck cooked in a tin can. His flavours are massive, but his technique is entirely classic. It's a frighteningly seductive combination.
Picard's Cabane à Sucre is just far enough away from the city to deter the coach-trippers: it's the stuff of pilgrimage. In his 'sugar bush', he has 4,000 tapped trees; it takes, on average, 40 gallons of sap to make one of syrup. Real maple syrup – as opposed to those bottles of brown gunk you get in the supermarket over here – is a revelation: subtle, caramelly, with a nutty, smoky fragrance and a pure, bright sweetness that, remarkably, doesn't cloy. Like every other natural product, there are degrees of excellence: experts can tell the difference between syrup harvested at the beginning of the season when the sugar water is light, and the darker, sappier stuff that arrives as the trees are about to shut down their bounty.
Our first glimpse of the Cabane verges on the magical. It's entirely snowbound, the eaves of the long wooden building (made from maple wood, of course) dripping with icicles so perfect they look positively Narnian. A 20-minute stroll through the snow brings us to the stomping ground of those well-fed pigs currently bronzing in the smoker.
Inside, the shack is noisy, organised chaos. As a sad pair, we're perched at the bar facing the curing room, festooned with sausages and hams and serried racks of lacquered, plump ducks. The tables are colonised by extended families and large groups, plaid-shirted and puffer-jacketed, corralled into a semblance of sanity by gorgeous, Adidas-clad staff.
And oh, dear Lord above, the food. You're going to have to put up with a lot of repetition of the words 'maple' and 'syrup': it features in every dish, meat or seafood, kicking off with a surprisingly unsickly maple daiquiri and climaxing with an orgy of desserts. The only thing it doesn't appear to star in is a bizarre, chunky take on sushi – fried sturgeon wrapped in nori on sushi rice, crowned with oreilles de crisse and real gold leaf for bling. But wait. Those crisp pork curls are sweet…
The servers trundle dishes out on wheeled trolleys. There's cretons, the rillettes-ish pork studded with sweetbreads and cubes of boudin noir, its mustard and whipped goat's cheese accompaniments syrup-spiked. Even the blamelessness of a token fennel salad is pleasurably defiled by maple-candied pecans. Then maple-pickled herring and onions, a whole fish, with maple mayo. Omelette soufflé, a skillet the size of a regular frying pan, probably a dozen eggs and a whole lobster, rich with duck fat, crowned with fleshy layers of Montreal's beloved smoked beef and glazed with syrup-laced brown butter.
On it comes: half a Frisbee-sized tourtière, buttery pastry oozing meat (these sell at a rate of about 200 a week). The sturgeon sushi. And these, my friends, are just the starters.
There are those ducks, varnished into gleaming bonbons by being regularly spritzed with water and syrup during its two-hour roasting. The classic sugar shack fêves au lard (baked beans) turn out to be laced with confit duck. On a vast vol-au-vent laden with a whole lobe of foie gras, béchamel, cheese, ham and more of the oreilles de crises sits a tangle of watercress. They're joking, aren't they? Like anything is going to make this reprehensible confection even remotely healthy.
There's more. Much more. To tell you that the puddings feature syrup would be otiose: cinnamon buns, eclairs, tiny cones of marshmallow and caramel, ice-cream and that tire sur la neige. The final flourish – straw? – is provided by fluffy, syrupy pancakes fried in duck fat. By this point, over-sugared children are bouncing off the walls – those padded jackets come in handy – their excitement fuelled by vast clouds of barbe à papa: syrup candy floss.
In case you infer – with a good deal of reason – that this is some kind of punitive, outré, grande bouffe, every table is automatically furnished with logoed, brown-paper doggie bags. Sure, it's excessive, but like our own Christmas dinner blow-out, it only happens once a year. And what the rowdy groups are taking home in tin-foil trays is likely to feed them in some style for the next few days. Although it has to be said that the salad crowned with pork rinds, the only dish to appear on the menu since the shack launched and which tastes like pork scratchings for seraphim at the time, doesn't look quite as appetising the next day.
Picard's Cabane à Sucre book has just been published. Of course, it's no ordinary how-to manual. Recipes for squirrel sushi, beaver and Canada goose jostle with a doomy short story about the last surviving woman on Earth eating herself to death, a treatise on maple syrup production written by two biologists, and arty shots of pastry chef Gabrielle Rivard-Hiller naked in a bath of syrup. Before you cry 'sexist', those photographs are the work of Marie-Claude St-Pierre. She's also dishing out those daiquiris from behind the bar.
I don't think that Picard sets out to be outrageous or shocking but rather, a bit like the unruly toddler he occasionally resembles, he's got the biggest new train-set in the world, one that makes gallons of syrup, lovely lovely syrup, and he's never had so much fun. And he wants to share the fun with all his new chums. The result is the most rarefied of culinary experiences – even more so now that global warming is threatening production.
Like a folksy, syrup-soaked Brooklyn Table, it's almost impossible to get a reservation here without some serious dedication. Booking lines open on 1 December at midnight Canadian-time and you need an RSI-proof dialling finger to get on the case – the whole season's bookings sell out in less than a day. And it's worth that dedication, oh hell yes it is. It will be a long time before I get that tourtière off my mind, its crisp, golden pastry, the rich, offally filling, the curious coalition of stodge and artistry. And probably a lot longer before it disappears from my arteries. But hey, what a way to go.
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