There comes a time every year when food fanatics around the province hit send e-mail simultaneously in hopes to get a phone call to set a mandatory reservation for Au Pied de Cochon owner and chef Martin Picard’s yearly sugar shack extravaganza. People wait anxiously for weeks, some never hearing back and forced to try their luck next season. But what was once an annual affair is now a bi-annual opportunity: maple syrup in the spring and apples in the fall.
The team is currently hosting the first edition of the apple-centric feast at Picard’s North Shore cabin. They’re fully booked for 2012, and at this point, your chances don’t look so good on the waiting list. If you didn’t snag a reservation, torture yourself with these pictures instead.
The shack looks great in the fall, especially with the pumpkin patch out front and barrels of apples and butternut squash on the porch. You get a chance to take it all in while you wait for the hostess to call your name. Once you’re inside, the cabin isn’t all that big but it has an intimate quality you’d come to expect. Even their tables are communal, so if you didn’t reserve for a party of ten, expect to feast shoulder to shoulder with chummy strangers just happy to be there.
You don’t get to pick and choose what you want to eat. You get all 12 courses served family-style for $50.00/person. If 12 courses don’t translate to come armed with an empty stomach and stretchy pants, know that Picard is notorious for being over-the-top with all things heavy and unhealthy – God bless him. Pace yourself and don’t worry about leaving food behind – you get to pack leftovers homes. Both are key if you want to get through the excessive ordeal alive.
For me, the best part of the feast starts in the beginning. All four appetizers are worthy of the spotlight. Everything. Is. Incredible.
The cream of squash au gratin blew my mind. I’d stick it in my veins if I could. An impossibly creamy blend of sweet butternut squash and cream sits in a Dutch oven, with paper-thin slices of apples, a generous hand of cheese and crushed amaretto cookies sprinkled over top. Ladle up, and oozy strings of cheese will follow. The apples don’t add much to it, but the sweet, crunchy cookies – edges slightly softened from the wet heat – bring it hard. It’s what every cream-based soup aspires to be.
I couldn’t keep my hands off the goat yogurt and the fresh bread it came with. The yogurt is thick and creamy but a lot lighter in texture when compared to cream cheese. It’s firm enough to hold its shape but super easy to spread. If you’re squeamish about goat dairy, this stuff is pretty mellow so lay in on thick. The salty slivers of foie gras add a touch of luxe and the honey (honeycombs included) sweetens it up. It’s fantastic. And with bread, you just might spoil your appetite.
Look at this. This is the cured ham and headcheese draped over a pig’s skull. Can you say drama? Headcheese, by the way, isn’t cheese, it’s like jellied meat loaf made with head flesh – the flesh from the skull you’re eating off of. Both cuts are extra fatty, salty and quick to melt in your mouth. There’s even a hint of acidity to help cut through the richness of it all. Stunning presentation. Tastes even better.
Tip: Pair some with some goat yogurt and bread.
Assembled tableside in a wheel of Parmesan – scraping the sides for sharp cheese – this decadent appetizer features liquid liver-stuffed ravioli, cavatelli and plump nuggets of foie gras tossed in an apple-infused sauce. The pasta is fresh and soft (not mushy), the foie gras is salty and buttery, and the sauce is like thick apple cider that’s sweet and sour. With the exception of desserts, it’s the only dish with discernable apple flavor. I can’t really describe it as a whole; there’s a lot of going on. One thing’s for sure, if you love foie gras, you’re going to love it.
For me, the main dishes didn’t level up to the appetizers. That’s not to say they weren’t good, because they were. They have a Sunday dinner with the family quality that’s hard not to enjoy.
This is their rendition of surf n’ turf. It’s part beef shoulder glazed and braised with apple juice and part Malpèque Oysters. The beef is tender (though not as tender as my mom’s) and especially tasty when doused in the savory reduction, and the steamed oysters are lip-lickingly salty. Hearty, good stuff. It’s served with Boston lettuce for a crisp, fresh take, and eggplant crepes with broccoli and hazelnuts.
I was the only one at my table who liked the eggplant crepes. The others found it too salty. They’re right. They’re really salty, but still edible. Soft on the inside, the surfaces are laced with a delicate crust and the edges are nice and crisp. Broccoli and hazelnut paste are sandwiched between the two crepes, the hazelnut so intense it almost masks the broccoli. It’s an interesting combo, and a tasty one at that.
Here’s the salmon, wrapped in newspaper and timely steamed. Unwrap it like a gift, as the waiter puts it, to reveal light pink flesh cooked all the way through. It’s got apples slices and basil in the middle, but the focus doesn’t stray from the fish – good, simple seasoning, tender, flaky and…basic.
I like basic, but that’s unusual for Picard. That’s where the cream sauce with apple cider and snails comes in. It’s meant to spoon over the salmon to give it a tangy dimension. Nice.
After banging appetizers and solid mains, we ended the meal on several sweet, high notes. The apple and chocolate soufflé was not one of them. I took one bite and didn’t want another. The apples and chocolate were good, but the barely-cooked cake tasted eggy and it was gritty from the uncooked sugar. No thanks.
Hands down, this is the best apple pie I’ve had to date. The crust is thick, buttery and baked to a gorgeous shade of brown that’s just asking to get sliced. Cutting through the flaky layers reveal soft and warm caramelized apples, sweet and tart with every bite. Amazing.
Guess what’s inside the cream carton cut-out and underneath the cherry, pulled sugar and maple cotton candy? Ice cream, of course! Creamy vanilla-honey soft serve and tart apple sorbet – delicious. Forget vanilla and chocolate, these two were made for each other. And just when you think it can’t get any better, scoop some over the apple pie for double the pleasure. Sweet mother of…
The awesome doesn’t stop there. Baked in a can, this apple-prune bread pudding is absolutely incredible. It’s super moist and really dense. It’s also extremely sweet, and that’s before a dangerously sugary apple-caramel sauce is poured over top – the bottle left on the table, persuading you to reach diabetes before schedule.
This was my first time ever at Picard’s sugar shack and it was everything I expected it to be – delicious, decadent and not for the faint of heart. Purists might say I should’ve saved my first experience for the maple season, but the fall feast opened my eyes and stomach to the wildly luxurious promises of maple in the spring. Reservations for the maple season of 2013 open December 1st. I’ll be acting accordingly. Hope you do the same. Maybe we’ll even share a table!
Cabane à sucre Au Pied de Cochon
11382 Rang de la Fresnière
St-Benoît de Mirabel, Québec