The Impulsive Traveler: Spring in Montreal, as sweet as maple syrup
By Joe Yonan,
By the time our waitress cut us down to size, we’d already eaten the following: fried sturgeon “sushi,” maple-marinated herring with potatoes, organ meat terrine with maple buckwheat blini, foie gras in puff pastry with bechamel and cheese, lobster souffle with potatoes and smoked beef, and a meat pie containing four kinds of pork — and “garnished” with three kinds of offal.
I was with two friends at the bar of Cabane au Sucre Au Pied de Cochon, 45 minutes outside Montreal, and each of those latter three dishes could have filled up six people, easy. But we’re professionals, and we know the power of pacing. We knew better than to come close to finishing any of them. So when our waitress said, “I hope you’ve saved room for the main course,” our hearts — and our stomachs — sank. That wasn’t the main course?
One roasted duck, two more forms of pork and a pot of beans (with more duck) later, it was clear: This place can make even the pros feel like rookies. And that was before dessert hit, and hit big, with maple syrup in so many forms we lost count. By the end of the meal, when locals were ordering up takeout containers by the bagful for all their uneaten food, we decided that rather than waste our bounty, we’d donate it to the couple sitting next to us. They planned to do the sensible thing and ring up a bunch of friends to come over the following day for a party.
The wild chef behind these festive mountains of food is Martin Picard, whose Au Pied de Cochon in the city has been a sensation for its unsubtle dishes, such as pig’s trotters stuffed with foie gras. As a defender of Quebecois cuisine, Picard bought a place in St-Benoit de Mirabel a few years ago and turned it into his own version of a cabane a sucre, or sugar shack, where syrup producers mark the season with maple-drenched meals. And his is no fake: On-site production of maple syrup is supervised by his uncle, Marc, and the liquid gold works its way into just about every dish, as does Picard’s sense of playfulness — and unbridled excess. (If you think that this man knows, or cares, about the meaning of “over the top,” consider the fact that he piles his fried-sturgeon sushi with pork rinds, and he sprinkles those with flecks of gold leaf.)
Picard’s sugar shack sells out its entire season within hours of taking reservations the previous Dec. 1, but there’s always next year. And it’s far from the only way to experience the region’s favorite obsession of late winter and early spring. Quebec, which produces 75 percent of the world’s maple syrup, is dripping with the stuff, and not just here in the countryside, where carloads of families pack into hundreds of cabanes a sucre for maple everything.
In Montreal, the season was quickly coming to an end because of the early arrival of warm weather; when the nights stop freezing and the trees start blooming, the sap stops running. Nonetheless, even a short season sparks pop-up shacks on busy plazas and outside subway stations such as Mont-Royal, where signs reading“Le nouveau sirop d’erable est arrive!” announce the arrival of the season’s syrup and the vendors sell Quebecois specialties such as barbe a papa a l’erable (maple cotton candy, or “papa’s beard”) and tire d’erable (maple taffy).
I had both at Picard’s restaurant but hankered for the traditional presentation of the taffy, laid out on fresh snow. So I took the Metro up to the Montreal Botanical Garden and trudged past its insectarium and through the sprawling arboretum, where snow was quickly melting, to the Tree House building. There, another Mirabel-based maple house, Les Sucreries Jette, had set up an outpost for the season. I stepped up to one of the big metal trays, and a gray-haired man wearing stylish eyeglasses ladled a swipe of thickened maple syrup onto the ice in front of me. I handed him a $2 coin in exchange for a little wooden stick. I waited a few minutes for the syrup to start to harden, then poked the stick into one end and twirled until I had a pure blast of sticky sweetness, the sun shining through it like amber.
“There’s your lollipop!” a man told his son, who was twirling in unison with me. “Get it!”
Perhaps it was the sugar rush, but as the boy begged for another round, I found myself itching to know a little more about the history of maple sugaring in Quebec, so I headed back downtown to Canadian Maple Delights in the Old Port neighborhood. Downstairs from all the pastries and other maple products (maple caviar, anyone?), the free museum has a decor with a tree motif. Amid historic examples of taps, pails and other equipment, the display tells how native Americans were first to discover “sinzibuckwud,” the Algonquin word meaning “drawn from wood,” using their tomahawks to cut into the tree, reeds to run the sap into birch buckets and hot stones to concentrate it. A far cry from modern production, in which tubing takes sap from thousands of trees right to storage tanks, and reverse osmosis systems shorten the time it takes for the sap to evaporate into syrup.
Interesting, all. But I was most captivated by a short mention that family “sugaring off” events, the end-of-the-season neighborhood parties that gave birth to the commercial sugar shack experience, would typically top off the large meal — including maple taffy on snow — with “outdoor activities or a dance to burn off the calories.” I was still feeling bloated from the previous day’s maple-soaked brunch in Mirabel, and it struck me that if Picard wanted to be particularly true to Quebecois tradition, perhaps he should require everybody at his cabane a sucre to get up after that last course of maple-glazed sticky buns, maple taffy on maple praline ice cream, and maple-cream-filled eclairs topped with maple cotton candy, and do a little dance. Or a big one.
Better yet, maybe he should take down all those tubes behind the shack, streaming from tree to tree like so many telephone lines, and instead make his guests haul all those buckets of sap back to the evaporator by hand. Something tells me that those Algonquin Indians and early settlers, a little more active than your average American tourist in Montreal, felt just fine after even the largest maple-soaked meal.
I, however, needed to find a gym.
Yonan is on a year’s leave from The Washington Post to work on book projects in southern Maine. He can be reached through his Web site, www.joeyonan.com.