For those of you unfamiliar with a sugar shack...prepare to be educated, a little angry that you didn't know about this tradition sooner and extremely jealous that your tastebuds did not get to experience what mine did at the premier sugar shack, Cabane à Sucre Au Pied De Cochon.
What is a sugar shack? It's a cabin or series of cabins where the sap from sugar maples is boiled into maple syrup. They've been around since the mid-18th century in Eastern Canada and remain an ongoing tradition especially in Quebec, where the majority of the world's maple syrup comes from. Originally sugar shacks served "feasts" only for the workers that harvested the sap after a long day of trudging around in waist-high snow. But...lucky for us, a great deal of them are now open to the public and provide everything from horse rides and grounds tours to music and shows. I didn't come all the way to Quebec for a horse ride though. Take me to the food.
While Cabane à Sucre Au Pied De Cochon does not have the bells and whistles of some sugar shacks, it has the most important feature...a mind blowing, tastebud tantalizing, stomach stretching feast. About a 45 minute drive from Montreal, Martin Picard is the genius chef behind this place. I'm fairly certain the name translates to sugar shack of the pig's foot. I mean, it can't get more real than that. His sister restaurant Au Pied De Cochon is located in the city and is known for its over the top excess. When in doubt, put some foie gras on it. This theme is carried on to his sugar shack. In general all sugar shacks provide a basically endless feast of foods that pair well with maple syrup such as beans, pork, potatoes and eggs among other less traditional items. The Cabane à Sucre Au Pied De Cochon provides that and more with a luxurious spread that is worth waiting months for.
To get a reservation you have to put in a request at midnight on December 1st. Then you have to wait patiently for weeks while they work through all the requests until it's your turn. They give you an option, you take it or leave it. In our case it was a Thursday, March 31st at the 20:30 seating. We happily accepted. This particular sugar shack also has a fall harvest season where the feast is centered on apples, not maple syrup. The request window for the harvest season seatings is on April 1st at midnight, which we were informed of first hand since it happened to be the very night of our seating. We had a car with us and drove ourselves to the location. It would be pretty difficult and costly I can imagine to arrange for cabs back and forth so I'd recommend convincing someone to be the designated driver (you don't need to waste stomach capacity on booze anyway) and renting a car for the day. The drive from the city was easy.
It's a little over $60 a person for basically all you can eat. The meat pie is extra and completely unnecessary because of the sheer quantity of food you're already getting...yet still desirable if you've been craving a mountain of various meats. It's a tight squeeze as they fit as many people as possible around communal, wood tables with benches. You'd need 10 people in a party to have a table to yourself. Logistics aside, it's one of the best meals I've had in my life to date. I still dream about the maple goodness.
We were told we were going to receive 2.5 appetizers, 2.5 mains and 2-3 desserts for the 6 of us. I'm not sure where these Canadians learned how to count because the food we received was enough to last a month and way more than the aforementioned quantities. They give you to-go containers basically right when you sit down because they know it's impossible to finish all that food. On the way out when you pay the counter is littered with amazing treats as well as the winter hats the staff wears, Martin's cookbook and other swag. Try to think through the food coma and purchase something to enjoy in the following days. Even though I could not imagine ever being hungry again by the time our dinner was over, I regretted not taking a look at the items available for purchase before leaving because from what I remember, they looked great.
Now let's dissect the ridiculous spread we received.
You are presented with a wine bottle full of maple syrup on the table for your use throughout the dinner. We ate some of it with a spoon while we were waiting and were blown away by how good it was. Worlds apart from the crap Aunt Jemima or Log Cabin make, no offense. They also serve an array of maple inspired cocktails which were delicious. The servers even walk around with a maple/brandy shot around their necks which is presented in two separate tubes for you to suck down simultaneously beer bong style. Try not to fill up too much on booze though regardless of how fun and yummy the concoctions are because you are in for the feast of a lifetime.
Phase One: Appetizers
Our 2.5 appetizers consisted of a pâté cake, a personal sea snail stew complete with blue cheese/maple syrup pastry top, a split pea soup with various types of pork and fresh greens and a béchamel drenched omelet stuffed with minced pork topped with boiled potatoes. 2.5 appetizers my ass.
The first appetizer was a three tier, masterpiece of liver-based goodness that deserves some additional detail. The jelly-like layer on tier one was a boozy, maple experience, the yellow on tier two was a delicious apricot addition and anywhere green was pistachio enhanced. Complete with pistachio and gold flakes, this was a decadent start to our feast. Look at that foie gras butter seeping out of tier two. It was served with hot toast and still haunts my dreams...in a good way.
You'll notice we've already blown past 2.5 appetizers at this point with the main courses nowhere in site. The final appetizer surprise is also worth noting because it's so unassuming but was out of this world. Just a "simple omelet"...that happened to be filled with a delicious, minced pork filling that reminded me of the cinnamon kissed meat used in a Greek pastitsio, topped with boiled potatoes drizzled with olive oil and herbs and then COMPLETELY DRENCHED in bechamel sauce. I would have devoured every bite of every one of these appetizers if we didn't know there was more to come (I pretty much did eat my entire sea snail stew...I couldn't help it it was so good). But there was more to come. Much, much more.
Phase 2: Meat Pie Detour
When they brought out the meat pie we had already filled 2.5 of our 6 to-go containers, one of which contained literally half the omelet. The meat pie is a behemoth. Our server named about 6 different kinds of meat it contained. I don't remember all of it but the pulled pork it contained was a little gamey for my taste so it wasn't my personal favorite but everyone else enjoyed it. It had to have weighed at least 10 pounds and came served on pictorial directions on how it was made. Half of the meat pie joined the half omelet in a to-go container.
Phase 3: Main Courses
Our 2.5 main courses consisted of the best smoked trout I've ever laid tastebuds on swimming in a buttery sauce and holding together a delicious, crisp salad which included chicharron "croutons" (of course), stuffed duck breast on a platter with deep fried, maple/citrus-y pancakes filled with pork and finally, root vegetables roasted in maple syrup, duh! The duck was served with half orange peels filled with a syrupy sauce as an accompaniment. The trout was my favorite but everything was again, ridiculously on point. It was during this course that I had to step outside for some fresh air before I could even fathom dessert. We really did not need that meat pie.
Phase 4: Dessert
I don't typically crave desserts or order them on a regular basis but there are categories that I find hard to resist mainly in the pudding (bread or British) or banana based categories. One of the main components of the dessert course was an entire, heaping bowl of maple banana ice cream. Man was that a show stopper for me. We also received a 3 in 1 platter complete with maple granita, maple candy and an entire tree trunk cake with chocolate bark and a layered pistachio, hazelnut, coffee cake center. Does that sound like a lot of dessert? Well there was more...a Pete De Soeur, or Nun's fart. It doesn't sound appetizing but it was delectable. It's named as such because it consists of just brown sugar, butter and flour...as easy to make as a Nun's fart. The Cabane had fun with it and served it under a Nun doll's garb. The warm, gooey tart was amazing paired with the ice cream. It was the highlight of the desserts for me.
So that was it. The ride back was mainly silent and occasionally reflective as we took turns naming our favorite dishes and trying not to succumb to food coma. Top four for me: 1) seafood stew 2) pâté cake 3) trout 4) omelet. Shit, 5) banana ice cream/Nun fart combo. See? I can't even limit it to four.
I honesty can't convey enough how absolutely fantastic this meal was. I can try with words and pictures but you really need to be there to understand. You need to experience the blissful, completely stuffed state of euphoria that results from this meal. As it's all over, as you're walking out with bags of food that you couldn't finish, you will inevitably tell yourself I can never do this again. I may not even be able to eat ever again. But you will. You'll wake up, food digested, and wish you could go back.