I'm driving an hour away from Montreal on my way to chef Martin Picard's Cabane à Sucre Au Pied de Cochon, and I can't help but feel apprehensive. I've never set foot in a so-called commercial sugar shack. My grandfather built his own in the early 2000s, but I still consider the Canadian notion of the "sugar shack" as a family-run operation; a sacred liquid gold temple.
A few winters ago, my grandfather was kind enough to show me the ropes and help him tap trees in -15ºC weather. Sugar maple trees are tapped and connected to one another through an impressive system of tubes that pump sap to the sugar shack. Once the sap has travelled all the way down, it is collected in a series of steel tanks and then boiled into maple syrup. This is then followed by my favourite part: The whole family gathers around the table to drink beer and eat greasy maple syrup-infused dishes.
Martin Picard, the man who defines and dominates the art behind decadent, artery-clogging cuisine, is intimidating, to say the least. My friends felt the need to give polite warning before I headed to the PDC Cabane à Sucre. One of them softly mentioned, "Be careful. There's always more food coming."
For anyone who's unfamiliar with Picard's food, unbuckle your pants before reading any further. Dubbed the "wild chef" by his show on the Food Network, he became famous for putting foie gras on almost anything. In 2006, he fed Anthony Bourdain over ten foie gras dishes in one sitting as part of the TV show No Reservations. Picard dominates the notion of gluttonous decadence in all things food and booze. Consuming Martin Picard's decadent food is like eating the phrase YOLO, but this culinary experience is also a clear reflection of the Quebec sugar shack culture. It's the same experience that has influenced Montreal's chefs for over a decade.
Picard's desire to open the sugar shack in 2008 came from his profound desire to follow his grandfather and great grandfather's footsteps, but also because of the quasi-nonexistent dining options in the Quebec countryside. "We have one of the most breathtaking sceneries, especially in the fall when the leaves change colour," said Picard. "But before us, there was nowhere for people to go out."
My fear of seeing the family tradition aspect of the sugar shack tainted and "reinvented" by a famous chef quickly faded as soon as I met Picard and his team. Even though the PDC Sugar Shack feeds about 1,600 people every week during the fall and winter seasons, nothing about it feels like a factory. Picard's family is very involved: his nephew makes bread, Mononc' Marc (uncle Marc) boils maple syrup in the springtime, and Picard's girlfriend takes care of the garden out front. Talking to people at Cabane PDC, I get the sense that the local community and the seasonal Montreal expats willingly come together as one large family to help fulfill Picard's vision.
Down by the garage, neighbors come and go to chat about last night's boozy meal and to help fix the wheel of Picard's small dumper trailer. The chef walks around asking technical questions, obviously trying to understand what the guys are doing. This kind of humbleness is very characteristic of Picard's attitude at the Sugar Shack; "When I got here I didn't know how to do anything," he said. The Cabane doubles as Picard's laboratory during the off seasons and some kind of year-round nature learning center. "You can't control everything," said Picard. "In the country, nature dictates the rhythm of things, and you have to adjust accordingly."
Once the wheel is fixed, Picard takes us onto his truck and we are off to feed the pigs with the help of his neighbor, Normand. Driving through the forest (the land PDC owns is the equivalent of ten football fields) it becomes clear that Picard made it a point to let nature run its course.
Even though there's a relaxed enclosure, Picard's pigs—he has over 50 of them—are left to roam free in the forest year round.
"We were so worried when the females would give birth in -40°C weather," said Picard. "I even spent the night outside with one of them to make sure her piglets would make it." We spend the next 30 minutes cutting fresh melons open to feed to the pigs.
Back at the sugar shack with a parking lot now packed to the gills, guests sit down at the large communal tables while the room fills up with delicious aromas. We sit in the adjacent "evaporator" room, where Mononc' Marc boils maple syrup in the spring. As the drinks—the first of many being a broccoli caesar—and the food start piling up in front of us, I decide not to follow my friends' advice and clear off all my plates. This was a rookie mistake. The service starts off gently with a cooked oyster topped with foie gras nuggets followed by a brioche bread wrapped around a massive Charlevoix cheese sausage. By the time we finish our sixth appetizer and first two main courses, they bring out a merguez tagine I had seen cooking earlier in the day in the gigantic custom-made wood oven outside, so I couldn't say no. It's too late, I have to surrender my fork. I am out.
Having survived through numerous maple syrup-infused dinners with my grandfather, I naively thought I could handle what Picard had in store for us. I was wrong. By that time, sous-chef Vincent Dion-Lavallée and PDC partner Marc Beaudin had joined our table as some of us continued eating and drinking.
The conversation quickly moved from local products and farm-to-table dining to family and sex, naturally. There is something elusive about wooden sugar shacks, or maybe the combination of sheer gluttony and endless bottles of wine that take place here to make people want to overshare. If this is some sort of hazing process, count me in.
After a few shots of Remi Martin XO, Picard drops a plastic box filled with headlamps in front of us. We head outside geared up for a spelunking expedition in search of blue potatoes. Never in my life have I been so eager to go out in the cold and darkness to put my hands in dirt.
All day I've been amazed at the way Picard treats his staff with genuine care, almost like family members judging by the way they treat him in return. It feels like I have become part of the PDC family, if only for an evening.
Eventually, after much digging, we come back inside, hands full of dirt, proud to have found the coveted blue tubers. While we sip on the last few drops of cognac, listening to a song by Les Colocs, I think to myself, as long as Martin Picard is around shining a spotlight on our local cuisine with the crazy things he's up to at PDC, I don't have to worry about Quebec's sugar shack traditions turning into dinosaurs.
This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in September 2014.