It starts with a sunny spring road trip deep into Quebec's idyllic forest, the fresh air blasting the last traces of winter out of your veins. Then you head indoors to clog those same veins with a high-cholesterol culinary heart-attack-in-a-sugar-shack. Noshing yourself into a sugar coma at a cabane à sucre is an annual spring ritual in Quebec, the world's biggest producer of maple syrup.
It seems a long way off, but for the ultimate sugar-shack experience, you need to book in advance. Way in advance. Reservations by e-mail for seats at Quebec chef Martin Picard's rural table are being accepted starting next Wednesday.
Since it's such a time-honoured francophone tradition, it was only a matter of time before the much-lauded Mr. Picard upped the sugar-shack menu ante, just as he did with Québécois cuisine in general at his landmark restaurant, Au Pied de Cochon. There he trotted humble pig's feet back into the limelight and took poutine up-market by partnering it with foie gras. And so it is with his line-up of over-the-top courses that make up a sugar shack chowdown.
The establishment is a typical forest shack that holds a noisy gathering of about 120 people, families and couples sitting cheek by jowl at long wooden communal tables as the nearby evaporator steams 20 to 50 litres of water out of runny maple syrup to produce a single litre of sweet nectar.
First up are the apps and as with most of Mr. Picard's creations, vegetarians would starve to death here. There is traditional pea soup with chunks of foie gras followed by arugula salad with diced ham sprinkled with walnuts and those "Oreilles de Christ," deep-fried ribbons of pork lard called Christ's ears. Ployes are tiny buckwheat pancakes served with maple syrup and they're cozied up alongside strips of salmon gravlax with onion compote, a mound of Quebec-style pork pâté called cretons, and deep-fried chicken feet in a spicy barbecue sauce.
As you're washing all that down with bottles of Quebec apple cider, the mains belly up in a parade that starts with a giant omelette stuffed with maple-smoked sturgeon sprinkled with beef brisket. Half a maple-glazed chicken is perched atop a beef tongue au jus. There are baked beans, celeriac coleslaw and half a cabbage stuffed with lobster, foie gras and ground pork on a bed of lentils. Everything, as per sugar-shack custom, is generously doused in maple syrup.
Still peckish? Fork out $10 for half or $20 for a whole flaky, lard-laden tourtière meat pie and accompanying homemade tomato relish, one of Mr. Picard's signature dishes; he will produce 3,000 out here in the woods - he also bakes his bread here - for both his restaurant and shack. Or take one home with you.
Then there's dessert. A massive banana split is stuffed with maple sponge and bombarded with maple-pineapple and dark chocolate ganache clusters. Maple cotton candy and maple-sugar mille-feuille are up next along with maple-doused hotcakes simmered in duck fat. If you're still capable, Popsicle sticks with maple taffy are sitting on the snowbanks outside.
The first in with their e-mails on Dec. 1 will snag the day they request (generally hearing back by early January). Everyone else is offered an alternative sitting during Mr. Picard's brief third season that runs roughly from early March through Mother's Day. It's a fine celebration of spring, but our arteries and waistlines are grateful it happens only once a year.
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