On the 45-minute or so drive from downtown Montreal to Martin Picard’s Cabane à Sucre Au Pied De Cochon in rural St-Benoit de Mirabel, it’s easy to spot at least a few roadside sugar shacks.
These maple-syrup season staples are as Quebec as winter and hockey. Every year, around the time the snow starts to melt, cabanes à sucre—sugar shacks, to my American friends—will be buzzing with life, music, horse carriage rides, and always that sweet and sticky gold poured on everything, including snow.
Most sugar shacks have been functioning the same way for generations, serving a traditional yet inviting spread of pork, pancakes, and beans. It’s still a beautiful part of Quebec’s cultural landscape and a must for any tourists who find themselves here in early spring. But when “Wild Chef” Martin Picard—the man synonymous with foie gras, and the one responsible for kickstarting a high-end Quebec comfort-food scene when he combined it with poutine at the original Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal—added his indulgent, gastronomic flair to the traditional sugar shack, it re-ignited people’s interest in the roots of cabane à sucre culture.
Honoring the past, though, doesn't necessarily mean playing it by the book. You’ll still find pancakes at Picard’s sugar shack, only his will be fried in duck fat. And the tower of oozing foie gras? Well, that’s just part of the Picard experience that gave Au Pied De Cochon its status as a destination restaurant. Even though it’s a total dad joke, when Picard reaches for his side and says he has a “foie gras,” one can’t help but laugh and acknowledge there’s some truth to it.
“There are a lot of foie gras dishes here, aren’t there?” he says at one point during our interview, while scrolling through a list of his most memorable dishes. “I must put it in everything.”
“What about your morning cereal?” I ask.
“Okay, you got me there,” he says with a laugh.
Even so, Picard's extravagant reinterpretation of the classic sugar shack stems from his love of the unpretentious—the meals, as he puts it, where he came in with no expectations, and was blown away.
“You come in here, and everything is wood; people are dressed however they want,” says the bon vivant.
But what can be said about the diners desperate for reservations, those who come to his sugar shack with near-impossible expectations? “Well, we take those people out back and bury them in the woods,” he says wryly. The job of re-examining your country's culinary past may be a serious one, but Picard proves that it's best done with a sense of humor.
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