Vive le Québec livre! Au Pied de Cochon's pouding chomeur and our Montreal road trip
Choosing travel destinations based on cookbooks can seem foolish -- until you find the right cookbook, that is. For me, one of those cookbooks is Au Pied de Cochon -- The Album. After ogling it for a month and preparing the wonderful foie gras poutine recipe, Rachel and I decided to make the pilgrimage to la belle province for a meal at the source. We just needed to find the opportunity. So when it found us, in the form of our friends Jill and Rob, we packed our bags and thanked The Fates for giving us friends who are perpetually willing to venture near and far for good food.
For a restaurant praised by the likes of Anthony Bourdain and Gourmet, Au Pied de Cochon's dishes are surprisingly unrefined, and gratifyingly so. Most reflect the traditions of pure laine quebecois and their descendants: rustic and bold, devoid of pretension, yet elevated by the quality of the ingredients and the care taken in their preparation. As an Album junkie, I arrived with a list as long as my arm of things I wanted to try.
"As long as my arm" comes close to describing my main course, a foie gras stuffed pig's trotter (click here for the recipe) nestled on a mound of mashed potatoes, a gargantuan plate that elicited gasps of wonder from my tablemates. The trotter tastes delicious -- stuffed with a medley of mushrooms, onions, garlic and herbs -- but it is possible, I'm loathe to admit, to have too much of a good thing on occasion. The mashed potatoes are so burdened with cheese that the cheese itself acts like some of kind of glue, turning otherwise delicious potatoes into a gloppy mess that contorts into Dali-esque shapes on the fork. Duck in a can, a signature preparation, also disappoints. The dish is absurd, really. Canning the succulent flesh of a duck breast makes even less sense than canning tuna, but can it they do. This meat cries out for a quick sear, not the slow torture of a can. The resulting dish was the biggest disappointment of the night: a grey, flabby exterior hiding a lush slab of foie and a narrow band of tender pink flesh.
Go beyond the duck and mashed potatoes, however, and the meal was a parade of delicious, soul-nourishing dishes. Foie gras cromesquis offer the first surprise: a medley of cream, foie, and seasoning that, for me at least, calls to mind el Bulli's liquid croquettes. Rolled in bread crumbs and deep fried, the foie dissolves into an indulgent liquid centre that explodes in the mouth. Pickled venison tongue, seared for service and spread on toast points proves equally lipsmacking. A Flintstone-sized pork chop, thick enough to merit a roast in a brick oven, may be the best chop in any restaurant anywhere.
After indulging in such a feast, dessert was a certainty, bulging stomachs be damned. I immediately settled on the pouding chomeur (cliquez ici pour la recette). Its name -- literally "unemployed person's pudding" -- derives from the minimal cost of the ingredients used to make it, though this is likely true only in Quebec where maple syrup is very affordable. Our server applauded my decision. "It doesn't really matter," he replied when asked for further recommendations, "you've already ordered the best dessert on the menu."
The pudding was irresistible, with a rich smell of caramelized maple -- moist, buttery cake in a sticky, toffee-like sauce, reminiscent of traditional British puddings. Though I had, technically, ordered it for myself, all four of us devoured it.
Since the Album includes the recipe, there was no doubt we'd be making pouding chomeur upon our return. No dessert could be simpler: a chilled batter, made from just butter, sugar, flour and baking powder, bakes in a bubbling cauldron of boiling cream and maple syrup. The real challenge is in keeping the portions small. Despite the enticing aroma, one bite is enough to set my heart racing, redden my cheeks, and give me a throbbing, hot feeling all over my face and neck. It's a classic sugar rush.
Dinner at Au Pied de Cochon was far from the only reason we visited Montreal. We made sure to feast on smoked meat sandwiches twice at Schwartz's, and snacked on poutine at La Banquise. We even took in some of the sights, strolling along the waterfront, visiting the Notre-Dame Basilica, and wandering like children through a personal favourite, the Biodome. And for purely altruistic reasons, of course, we took the time to finally settle one of the vexing debates that has torn Montreal apart for decades: St-Viateur or Fairmount? Montrealers take their bagels seriously, and though St-Viateur is the consensus pick amongst Montrealers, all four us prefer Fairmount. Both bagels -- sesame seed for me, thank you -- were tested while piping hot, and both are wonderful, but Fairmount won us over with its subtle sweetness and denser, more satisfying crumb. (Perhaps not coincidentally, I subsequently discovered that sweetness and density are, in fact, two of the defining characteristics of the Montreal-style bagel.)
We’d happily eat both, though. Given only two days to savour Montreal and using a cookbook as inspiration, it's best not to make a virtue of restraint.