I probably should not be so excited about you. And I especially should not be broadcasting my over the top, speaking to inanimate foodstuffs, excitement to the world, as it makes me sound a little bit crazy. But here I am.
You are comically small, for a tomato that came off of our “beefsteak tomato” plant. It took you forever to grow and ripen. But I watched you, and followed your progress, and you beat out the San Marzano and grape tomatoes, still green on the vine but growing every day, to be this summer’s inaugural garden tomato. I monitored your ripening very attentively as there is a nefarious squirrel in our garden who likes to beat me to the punch and steal a tomato just one day or so before it’s ripe, take a single bite out of it, and then leave it on the ground for me to find, a sort of calling card of its dodgy dealings. I am glad you did not fall prey to that fate and that I got to pick you, fully ripe, this morning. Fuck you, squirrel. I win this round.
I will wait to eat you until Graeme comes home. We probably consume you on slices of fresh bread with a little salt sprinkled on top. We will inevitably wax poetic about how there are just no tomatoes that compare to garden tomatoes. And while I will savour you, I will also feel kind of bummed out, because the appearance of this first tomato also means that it is late enough in the summer to be eating garden tomatoes. It means that summer is half over. You, my little fresh garden tomato, are a wonderful reminder of how sweetness and melancholy often present themselves hand in hand; the start of tomato season is both exciting and magical, and also a reminder that summer will end.
But for now, welcome!
PS – Lebanese cucumber, you’re next!
…a whole lot more. Hang in there folks, this will be a picture-heavy post, and I will try to minimize my yammering on in favour of letting the photos do the talking. And let me be clear: even the excesses of this third post about Barcelona do not cover the entirety of what we consumed there. There is still more that didn’t make the cut in the interest of keeping this post down to a “reasonable” (!) 29 photos. Needless to say, Barcelona is truly one of the greatest food cities I have been lucky enough to visit.
So we didn’t eat all the time. Just most of the time. Speaking of which, back to the food. While the copious amounts of pork and tomato bread that we consumed would likely have been enough to fuel us through our entire week in Barcelona, we did investigate a whole lot of the other delicious foods and drinks that the city has to offer. We did not have a single bad meal while we were there. We became addicted to small plates-style dining. Among the other highlights of our week in this glorious city, were:
Yes, of course, lots of delicious seafood:
These cod fritters, also from Paco Meralgo, which I haven’t shut up about in several posts, blew. my. mind. Perfectly fried and crispy, they were gooey and creamy inside. They had the perfect texture. I want to eat them forever.Aaaaaaand also from Paco Meralgo, Graeme and I have not shut up about this dish of octopus in a caramelized onion sauce. It is one of the dishes that brought us back to this restaurant on our last night in Barcelona as we rushed around the city trying to have each of our favourite dishes one last time. Look for something similar to this on the blog in the coming months–I am determined to recreate it at home. Or at least some lame facsimile thereof. Baby eels with mushrooms and garlic! If any of my girlfriends from grad school are reading this, you will recall our baby eel adventures from our trip to Portugal and Spain many moons ago. Graeme was super into this dish–the eels are chewy and super garlicky and now that I’m a less squeamish eater, we both really enjoyed them!Anchovies. Enough said.And paella. Oh our lovely paella. We scarfed down the best paella I ever ate after a morning relaxing on Barcelonita beach. I may not have mentioned this on here, but our trip to Barcelona was actually prompted by my having a conference to attend, such that there was a little bit of work in between all this eating. All of the work-related anxiety and exhaustion melted away after a morning on the gorgeous beach, which could not have been followed up by a more perfect lunch than this seafood paella, which takes over 30 minutes to arrive at your table after you order it, as it is all made fresh, from Can Majó, just off of the beach. If you poke around the internet, you will find lots of hang wringing over the sorry state of paella in Barcelona, but this resto was one that came up again and again in my searches for a good one. It was beautiful–the seafood was meaty and fresh, and the rice had an amazing texture and flavour. It was served to us in a giant paella dish, and we devoured the whole thing without a second thought.
Meats other than pork (and cheese!):
While pork was the star during our time in Barcelona, we did also enjoy a few other beautifully prepared meats. I will say that possibly my only food regret from Barcelona is how, obsessed with meat and seafood, we sampled very little local cheese. There just wasn’t enough time for everything! But I love Spanish cheese in general, and will have to keep exploring it back home.
We had this duck pate in a pear crust at Onofre on the same night that we ate this epic charcuterie plate. And yet we finished the whole thing. Because it was silky smooth and impossible not to keep returning to. Behind it is a lovely cheese plate of aged manchego that went beautifully with all of our meat.
We picnicked on ham and tetilla cheese. I love how creamy and refreshing this traditional Galician cheese is; it countered the pungency of our strongly cured meat really well. Graeme loves how, well, it’s named after its nipple shape.
Tapas, tapas, and more tapas:
These heavenly chickpeas were served to us at Bar Pinotxo, the legendary tapas bar in the Boqueria market. While extremely touristy, this place lived up to the hype, and the chickpeas above blew my mind. I have no idea how they prepared them, but they simultaneously still had a bite to them and were perfectly creamy in the middle. It is not often that I get so excited about chickpeas, but I could eat these every day for the rest of my life. Patatas Bravas. Ideally in a creamy and spicy sauce, this ubiquitous tapas staple can be exciting or totally mediocre depending on where you find it. Above was our favourite plate of them–it had an awesome kick to it!
Ham and chicken croquettes; these came courtesy of Bar Pinotxo as well, but we ate many more croquettes during our time in Barcelona. That I enjoyed these so much was a real shocker to me, as at home I would consider croquettes a very dated, 1980s, bland and tired sort of dish. But it is a staple of tapas culture, and so many places we ate did a beautiful job of them, frying them perfectly so that they’d be crispy but not greasy, and melted and creamy inside. I am now wondering if it is time for croquettes to make a comeback!
Occasionally even a little bit of fruit:
In my family, we have a “thing” about peaches in Europe in the summer. My dad will wax poetic about the best white flesh peach he ever ate, in Paris, in 1970-something. I am more likely to go one about flat peaches. Both kinds suck when you buy them here in Montreal, and come to life on the other side of the ocean, full of sweet juice. We could not resist them.
As might be clear from this blog, neither Graeme nor I tend to be huge wine drinkers. But in Barcelona we both fell head over heels for light white wines, which were just so refreshing in the summer heat, and a perfect accompaniment to light, small plates dining. Graeme sampled a great many beers in Barcelona, but even he eventually succumbed to the siren song of white wine. We generally skipped sweet drinks like sangria for these guys, amazed that we, for once, felt like we “got” wine, and the wonders it can do for a meal. We mostly drank pretty cheap wines but that didn’t matter; we even lugged one of our favourite, and cheapest, bottles home with us.
Thanks to a recommendation from a friend, we also discovered L’Ascensor, the world’s most unpretentious cocktail bar, which despite being so down to earth has an incredible reputation for being one of the best bars in Spain. Above are some refreshing mojitos that we drank there, a wonderful reprieve from the lame sugary ones that seem to overpopulate cocktail bars these days. L’Ascensor reminded me that properly made mojitos are awesome!
Another one of our Barcelona failures is how little dessert we ate! We were too stuffed full of meat! This is a ridiculous situation which, as you will see, we tried to remedy on our last night.
I became obsessed with this stand in the old city which sold a million different flavours of ice cream on a stick. How could you go wrong with this? It was not the most mind-blowing ice cream you’ll ever eat, but come on. Ice cream on a stick.We were in Barcelona for what we in Quebec know as the festival of Saint-Jean, which is also, it turns out, a festival in Spain. I was not a fan of navigating past 8 year olds setting off amateur fireworks in every part of the city the entire night, but I was a fan of the sweet bread that is traditionally eaten for this festival, which is pictured above. Crema catalana, is, effectively, Catalan crème brûlée. Which is to say that it’s awesome.
And then there was Espai Sucre, pictured above. This is where we made up for our paltry dessert eating. You may have noticed, in our Barcelona recaps, that we did very little fine dining while there; while there are, apparently, many excellent fancy restaurants in the city, we were on a fairly tight budget and had enough to explore on the regular proletariat side of things. We even had reservations for Ferran Adrià’s new tapas bar, and cancelled them. However, knowing that modernist cuisine has its roots in Spain, I did really want to go to at least one wacky modernist restaurant, and when we found out about Espai Sucre, which is an experimental dessert-only restaurant, with a pastry chef school attached to it, we decided that it would be a perfect way to cap off our trip. You can have an entire meal of desserts at Espai Sucre (I really recommend you look at their menu, it is insane!), but we did opt for the small, three-course each menus ourselves, as we had already wandered around the city filling up on the favourite dishes we had collected during our stay in Barcelona. I think dessert is a great way to explore modernist cuisine as dessert cookery is already so mad scientist-y to begin with. It did not disappoint. I ordered the “cheese” menu while Graeme ordered the “chocolate” one, and I will post photos of all of our dishes below.Goat “cheesecake” with raspberries, red pepper and ginger
Overall, it was a fantastic meal; I was especially fond of my first course cheesecake, which helped me understand the point of “deconstructed” food, as it combined everything that is delicious about a cheesecake in new formulations so that it was at once novel, while at the same time…everything good about a cheesecake. The chocolate crumbles, in particular, were so perfect and really captured what is so awesome about cheesecake crust at its core. Graeme raved about his second course, and the earthiness that the chocolate got from the inclusion of truffles. Neither of us have every been that crazy about truffles but somehow they really worked in that dish and helped us get why they are so hyped. The “weirdest” dish was, of course, his third, due to the inclusion of the tobacco. It kind of worked, as the tobacco also lent a real earthiness, once you could get over the idea that you were, you know, eating tobacco. The problem was that the tobacco flavour was a bit too strong and overpowered the dish, which did not help one get past the “I’m…eating…tobacco” feeling. It was the only one we both weren’t crazy about, but I think all it really would take for us would be scaling that tobacco down a notch, to be a complementary flavour and not such a dominant one.
Espai Sucre reminded me to be more open-minded about experimental cuisine. Graeme and I are both, at the end of the day, most passionate about traditional cuisines, and I will probably always prefer a simple tomato bread to deconstructed cheescake. But still, the work they do there is amazing and everything we ate was delicious, and luckily we are hungry enough that there is space in our bellies for both the old and the new. And we love trying new things so we felt really pleased with our experience at Espai Sucre as a way to cap off a fantastically gluttonous week in Barcelona. I totally recommend it as a great way to splurge.
It is easy to surmise what our favourite places were based on these long three posts about Barcelona, but if you want the quick rundown, here are our recommendations for eating and drinking in Barcelona:
Paco Meralgo: Get the cod fritters, octopus in caramelized onion, tomato bread, and, even though we didn’t try it ourselves, the cheese-stuffed and fried zucchini flowers–they just looked that good!
Onofre: They specialize in wine and charcuterie. So eat those. The huge charcuterie plate is worth it. Their dishes are huge though, so beware when ordering!
Bar Pinotxo: This tapas bar at the edge of the Boqueria market is a perfect place to grab lunch. Eat a plate or two of their sublime chickpeas (and you know, seafood and meat and stuff).
Can Majó: The paella is worth the wait. Reserve if you want to sit outside.
L’Ascensor: Get a mojito. Relax.
Hamming It Up:
La Boqueria: This market right off of the Rambla lives up to the hype and is a great place to explore the different hams, cheeses, seafood and fruits that Barcelona has to offer. Lots of places will let you buy little samples of various hams, which is how we started exploring.
Other Local Markets: There are excellent neighbourhood markets littered throughout the city, which are quieter but just as chock full of ham and other delicacies as La Boqueria, and they are well worth exploring as they are less crowded and allow for a more leisurely stroll. La Conceptió Market was right by our guesthouse, and so we spent a lot of time there, and everyone was incredibly friendly, helpful and knowledgeable.
Espai Sucre: where you can live out your childhood dreams and have dessert for dinner! And get a taste of what Spanish modernist cuisine is coming up with these days.
When people asked us what we were planning on doing in Barcelona, I always replied: “eat ham”. A funny, jokey response, right? Wrong. It’s not that I wasn’t interested in seeing Barcelona’s sights, walking along the Ramblas and the narrow, winding, shaded medieval streets of the Gothic quarter, lounging on the beach, seeing the Gaudi buildings and all that, it’s just that I am first and foremost interested in the things you can do to a pig.
I was not to be disappointed. Anna wrote about the wonderful tomato bread we had on our first night here, but our meal at the excellent Paco Meralgo also consisted of octopus with caramelised onions, cod fritters, asparagus sauteed with wild garlic, a ham and potato salad (Anna was initially skeptical of this, thinking that it was going to be some grocery store-style salad with mayo and cubes of diced ham–look how wrong she was):
and a plate of gorgeous dried sausage:
Our exploration of the fine meats Spain has to offer went on from this exciting start. The next day we went to the Boqueria Market and bought a small selection of Serrano ham and jamón ibérico to snack on:
The Serrano was excellent, with a deep, rich cured flavour, but the real revelation was the jamón ibérico. This is the famed Spanish ham made from a specific breed of pig raised only in the Iberian peninsula, with the most prized animals fed only on acorns. As far as I can tell, the hams are simply made–just salt-cured and dried for as long as three years–and they have this incredibly complex and sophisticated flavour: tangy, salty, nutty (Anna thought that the ham reminded her in a way of a well-aged Parmigiano-Reggiano), sharp, this is the greatest ham I have ever tasted. This ham haunts my dreams and mocks me with its simple beauty.
The other great discovery was morcón, which we first had as part of an extremely (extremely!) generous mixed charcuterie plate at a tapas bar called Onofre.
It was so good that we went back there on our last night to have it again. Morcón is the poor country relative of chorizo: the paprika-heavy seasoning is the same, but the morcón uses fattier, less expensive cuts of meat (my Spanish language comprehension is next to zero, so I believe that the server said that it is made from back meat…but I could be totally wrong about that) that are diced instead of ground. If you have any doubts about how delicious fat is and the difference it can make in food, do a side-by-side comparison of morcón and chorizo. The chorizo is excellent, yes, but I will take morcón over it any day.
When we got back I called my parents to let them know how the trip was and that we made it back safely, and my mom–who had been following Facebook updates about the vast quantities of ham and sausage we were eating–asked why we kept talking about ham and weren’t eating seafood. We did eat seafood, delicious seafood, and that’s perhaps for a future post, but who can resist eating excessive amounts of cured meats when ones this good are on offer?
It is with a very heavy heart that I must inform you that a few days ago, we had the displeasure of leaving Barcelona and coming back to Montreal. This is not an experience that I would wish on anyone. Were it not for incentives like this, we would have been even whinier than we already are about leaving what is truly one of the greatest cities that I have ever been lucky enough to visit.
It would be an understatement to say that we ate our way through Barcelona. Before our visit, neither Graeme nor I would have ranked Spanish food as one of the cuisines that we got especially excited about, but man, did that ever change. Graeme spent much of our trip looking like a kid in a candy store every time we passed by any ham (which was just about every 5 minutes). He will have to write about the many charcuterie epiphanies he had in Barcelona in a different post, but in the meantime, this is what a man high on ham looks like:
I, on the other hand, became obsessed with the wonder of eating small plates of incredibly simple food that was so damn fresh and satisfying that I could not get enough of it. Barcelona solidified my love of the unfussy. I too, will have to elaborate in another post, but in the meantime, I’d like to talk about one of the best possible examples of insanely delicious simple Spanish food: tomato bread.
Those of you who have spent time in Spain will recognize tomato bread as something that is served as an accompaniment with most restaurant meals. Simply put, tomato bread is…bread, rubbed with tomato. Yep. It is usually toasted, and complemented with some good olive oil, salt, and maybe garlic. (All the recipes I have found online recommend rubbing the bread with garlic, but I am certain that some of the very best breads we had in Barcelona really just relied on the tomato.) It feels like it shouldn’t be as damn delicious as it is, but there is nothing a properly ripe, juicy tomato won’t transform into magic. And good tomato bread really is magic. The plate above is the very first plate of tomato bread we sampled at the end of our first day in Barcelona, when we were so jet lagged and hungry that we deliriously stumbled into Paco Meralgo, an awesome little tapas bar that ended up being our very favourite restaurant in the city. Imagine two weary travellers trying to muster up the strength to stay awake past 9pm being presented with the plate above. We didn’t really know what we were looking at, we just shoved the bread into our mouths in the interest of taming our blood sugar levels. One bite and we were revived. Crispy and juicy at the same time, it just tasted like really damn good tomato. For the rest of the week we cursed ourselves because little did we know that this would be the very best tomato bread we would find on our entire trip; we even stopped by Paco Meralgo on our last night just to have it one more time.
We ate some absurdly delicious things during our time in Barcelona–some of the best ham I’ve ever had, some stunning seafood, incredible desserts, and other wonders that I will detail at another time. But the tomato bread was the anchor of our culinary experience there, and it is what I am most obsessed with trying to recreate back home. To begin with, it is clear that the dish relies on very ripe, very tasty tomatoes. It is lucky that I have developed this obsession at the start of tomato season; as I type this, a variety of tomatoes are growing, slowly and steadily, in my garden, getting ready to be experimented with.
In the meantime, I made my first batch of homemade tomato bread just two days after returning from Barcelona, to accompany a relatively simple summery dinner that I had thrown together (grilled steak and some roasted zucchini, shallots, bell peppers and mushrooms, with a garlic scape pesto). I bought a baguettine, sliced it and brushed it with olive oil, and put it in the oven to broil for a couple of minutes (as you can see from the top photo, I let it broil a little bit too long!). I then rubbed it with the ripest early-in-the-season tomato I could find, and salted it generously with some Maldon sea salt. What made the Paco Meralgo bread so transcendent were three things: the bread was perfectly toasted and crispy so that the tomato did not make it soggy; it tasted as tomato-ey as was humanly possible; and it was perfectly salted, so as to enhance the tomato flavour even more. I tried to keep these qualities in mind as I made mine.
The verdict? I accomplished, to my own delight, the first and third qualities very well for my very first try. But it still just wasn’t tomato-ey enough. This could be a matter of waiting for better, riper tomatoes, and I also think I need to be more aggressive and generous with the amount of tomato I rub on the bread. For a first attempt, it certainly evoked what we loved so much about the bread we ate in Barcelona. But it did not inspire the same level of fanaticism. We happily ate it all, and mopped up the leftover pesto with it nonetheless, and made notes for next time.
As we all know, sometimes mastering the simplest foods can be the trickiest. Watch this space for further tomato bread adventures!
In this post, I will begrudgingly admit that there is some awesome food to be had in Toronto. Obviously as a stereotypical Montrealer, it pains me to say this, but there you go. (I am just kidding, folks, please do not take my Toronto ribbing too seriously.)
We all know that charcuterie is very hip right now, which is both awesome, because charcuterie is awesome, and makes me suspicious that it will lead to a lot of mediocre sausages out there in the world. It is without a doubt a wonderful thing that so many people are embracing previously marginalized ways of preparing often difficult cuts of meat; charcuterie is truly an art form at its best, while retaining a certain rustic humility that makes it simultaneously transcendent and comforting. It is also at the heart of current discussions of food ethics, particularly because charcuterie makes use of a lot of offal, which allows us to be thrifty in our meat consumption, and less wasteful. So we are big, big fans, but as I have expressed previously, I do worry about the fancification (if I may be allowed to invent a word) of what is, effectively, “peasant food”. I have found, though, that my dividing line between what “works” and what doesn’t seems to be how good a job people are actually doing with these foods and methods. Make it tasty, and I will have a lot less anxiety about it.
In that vein, there is a running theme on this blog where some “next hot foodie thing” is super hyped and I am skeptical of it, until I actually taste said source of hype and come around. See my post on the Au Pied de Cochon Cabane à Sucre , for example. This probably says a lot more about me, and my grumpiness, than anything else. In any case, this weekend I had a similar experience in the great Canadian metropolis of Toronto, where I spent a little over 24 hours on a work trip. Most of my time in the city was therefore spent in a windowless room staring at powerpoint slides, but I found the time to venture into the city first to meet up with my sister and her family, and then to meet up with my college roommate, the inimitable Kevin. Kevin is a dear friend who lived with me back when I was still a vegetarian, and who looks a lot like Captain Highliner these days. For real. Check it:
Apparently Captain Highliner was wringing his hands for weeks as to where to take me for dinner during my one evening in Toronto, because he thinks I’m scary. I’m not really scary, I’m just kind of a jerk to Kevin. He finally took me to The Black Hoof, a new-ish restaurant specializing in offal and charcuterie, which he loves, but he was worried that I would dismiss it as overly trendy. Indeed, The Black Hoof is, as far as I can tell, a current hotspot in the T-Dot, full of well-dressed young things with perfectly tousled hair and expensive clothes meant to look cheap. The Black Hoof folks make all of their own charctuerie and serve it in a”small plates” format, which is also very trendy right now, but like with charcuterie, I kind of love it because I love family style meals, for all their sociability and because they allow you to try lots of different things. (I have a problem with indecisive ordering.) So I was down with some small plates gluttony.
So here you had a place that seemed to have every current food trend all rolled in to one. Of course I wanted to hate it. And of course, I actually loved it. Say what you will about the “hipness” of the restaurant, they make some damn good food, and that overshadows any pretentiousness. To be fair, the actual space felt far less pretentious than what I had expected given their website, which is a little bit precious for my tastes. The service was excellent, friendly, and not too “quirky”, and the portions were perfect (enough but not too much) for a small plates menu. The space is very cool, but not so cool that it will look dated in six months. The whole restaurant felt much more effortless than I had expected, which was nice.
And then there was the food. We had a very hard time deciding, but eventually we shared, while sipping pints of Beau’s Lager (which was good, but not nearly as good, in my opinion, as their ales that we’ve tried):
A plate of pickled vegetables, and their insanely velvety and perfect duck liver mousse, which you can see here just under Kevin’s smiling mug, served with an applesauce that complemented the mousse so awesomely that it made me really reflect on the possibilities of food pairings. I love eating stuff that makes me feel like I’m learning in a way that will enhance my own cooking at home. My only complaint about this mousse is that, as you can see in the photo, the presentation, in my opinion, looked a bit like a turd. The presentation on the rest of the dishes we tried was beautiful, so I am not sure what was up with this one. We seriously ate every bite of this mousse despite a fairly generous portion. It was silky and delicious, as was the bone marrow that we ate next, which was served with a sort of gremolata (I don’t think that’s what they called it), toast and Maldon sea salt, which is pictured at the start of this post. The marrow was melt-in your mouth and addictive as soon as you added a couple of flakes of salt to it. I have never eaten marrow like that and I feel like I could seriously eat it every day. We even mopped up its juices with our bread.
We then shared a pig’s tail pozole, which was a much meatier soup than I expected from, you know, a pig’s tail. With cilantro and lime it was really lovely, although probably the least memorable part of the meal (which is hardly a diss, the rest of it was just so good.)
And finally, we ended the meal with two smoky dishes: the smoked sweetbreads, with fiddleheads and other veggies (left) and beef tartare, with toast, egg yolk, parmesan, horseradish, and other goodness (right, and I have to admit that while the presentation of that dish is lovely, I wish it didn’t hide the meat!). Kevin had warned me that the sweetbreads had been controversial the last time he’d eaten there, as some folks found them too smoky, but we both agreed that while the smoky flavour is certainly strong in them, we love that kind of thing and it was delicious. This is probably one of the only times I’ve met a fiddlehead that I adored as well; generally I find them pretty underwhelming. My only complaint about the sweetbreads was that they could have been fried better; they were not as crispy as one might have hoped, and that would have really knocked them out of the park. But they were otherwise delicious, and had that awesome complex texture that I love so much from sweetbreads and that have made them an obsession for me as of late. The tartare was possibly my favourite dish of the evening; all the elements on the plate worked perfectly together, and I loved the gooeyness of the yolk with the crunch of the bread with the subtle spiciness of the horseradish. It really highlighted how great tartare can be. I was only sorry that it was the last thing we ate because I was so full already by that point. We still managed to devour the whole damn thing though.
Beyond some minor quibbles, my only real complaint came at the end of our meal, when the waiter asked us if we wanted a dessert or drink. I tried to order a mint tea (seriously, after a meal like that one needs to digest!) and was informed that they did not serve tea or coffee. What? It was not explained to me if this was a temporary state of affairs or not, but I hope that it is, because it is pretty unacceptable for a restaurant not to serve such standard drinks, and if it is a deliberate decision then this is the kind of “different for the sake of being different” that I find so irritating about trendy restaurants. Please, hipsters, put some tea and coffee on your menu and I will be loyal to you forever. Don’t try to mix things up when it comes to these sorts of dining expectations. Please.
So there you go. The moral of this story is that I should perhaps learn to be more open-minded about trendiness than I have been in the past; whatever the “hipster” factor at The Black Hoof, these are folks that clearly take their meat very seriously and do absolutely beautiful things with it. They are clearly very talented and are cooking thoughtful, precise food. It is a really lovely place to eat, both in terms of food and atmosphere, and it was a great space in which to catch up with an old friend. All of that stuff is more important than how cool a place is or isn’t, so good for them. And now I have to go learn how to cook me some bone marrow.
I always feel conflicted about the current trend towards restaurants serving upscale versions of comfort food. On the one hand, because I believe so strongly in food being about care and social connection and because this is just what I love to eat, I am a a diehard devotee of comfort food. These are the kinds of foods that connect us to our families, our cultural heritages, and each other. And so I am thrilled that when I go out for dinner, I increasingly have the option to indulge in this kind of eating. On the other hand, I am very skeptical of the commodification of traditionally “peasant” foods, which are re-appropriated and marked up to become acceptable to our yuppy palates. I hate the pretension of some of these efforts, and I am not sure they always do justice to the cultural traditions they claim to represent. They often seem like expensive versions of food that are tastier, and more satisfying, when I make them at home. Additionally, I wonder why we need fancy restaurants to rehabilitate these foods for us. In this post, I talked about rediscovering head cheese in one of Montreal’s nicer restaurants. It was absolutely amazing and I have no objection to a nice restaurant serving a delicious food that they’ve done super well–in fact, I am obviously glad that they’re perpetuating an often maligned form of charcuterie–but I kind of hated myself for only trying it within a fine dining context. And I hate that culturally, we increasingly talk about what used to be the food of the poor like it is exotic and mysterious. It makes me feel like Marie Antoinette playing in my peasant village or something.
(And of course, all of this reclaiming of “poor people food” is happening while very real issues related to actual poor people’s access to food are a huge social problem. And a problem that the very same “foodies”, while savouring their/our gorgonzola mac and cheese, tend to treat patronizingly as being about laziness, negligence and ignorance, rather than, you know, poverty. But this is a rant for another time.)
How can we honour these foods, and genuinely love and enjoy them, without fetishizing them? I don’t know, but this has been on my mind ever since we visited the Au Pied de Cochon Cabane à Sucre this weekend. For the non-Montrealers, Au Pied de Cochon and its accompanying cabane à sucre, are the creations of Montreal’s prodigal chef, Martin Picard. The former has been one of the most talked about restaurants in the city ever since it opened a little over five years ago. I first heard about it in the context of one of the restaurant’s most well-known dishes, its foie gras poutine, and I was instantly annoyed; I thought it sounded gimmicky and stupid, and a bastardization of a food that is meant to be cheap and simple. I came around, though, once I actually ate there, and understood what Picard was trying to do. Rather than simply trying to make “fancy” versions of local dishes, Picard has made it his mission to do justice to québécois foods such that they are recognized and taken as seriously as the French classics that have for so long dominated local fine dining. There is this fine line between bastardizing local dishes like pouding chômeur (literally “unemployed person’s pudding”) and doing justice to them that epitomizes my ambivalence with the fancy comfort food trend that I discuss above. And somehow Picard, who bathes half of his food in local foie gras that he miraculously manages to present totally unpretentiously, really pulls off the latter. I am not quite sure how he does it, but I think a large part of it is the genuine love and affection for these culinary traditions that pours out of the food his restaurants serve. They do not feel like a re-appropration; they feel like a love letter. While his restaurants are pricy, they are oddly good value given the generosity of the dishes and their richness (bringing home doggie bags is pretty much the only way to survive one of his meals). Despite the upscale nature of what he’s doing, the food is profoundly satisfying and comforting, as it should be. And it is absolutely delicious.
The cabane à sucre is the latest effort in Picard’s mission to pay hommage to québécois cuisine. For those not in the know, going to the cabane à sucre, or sugar shack, is an awesome springtime tradition in Québec; around the time they tap the trees for maple syrup, folks head out of town for their first breath of fresh air after a long winter, and generally eat a disgustingly rich meal of a dozen different kinds of pork/ham/lard, as well as pancakes and eggs, all bathed in maple syrup. This meal is usually finished off with tire, which involves one’s kindly host pouring lines of hot maple syrup into a trough of snow, which you then pick up and wrap around a popsicle stick and savour as it hardens. Trips to the cabane à sucre usually happen in big groups and often end in square dancing, or in another local “tradition” of sorts, crappy 80s disco music (a remnant of failed attempts to make the cabane à sucre “hip”). This is the stuff of extreme food nostalgia when you’ve grown up here, and so, as we headed out to Martin Picard’s version of the venerated institution, I was, again, skeptical. Cabanes à sucre are not meant to be fine dining experiences, I protested!
But it was so, so, so good. And once again, you had this space that certainly reinvented and fancified traditional québécois foods, but it was still so hearty, and so generous, and kind of sloppy and indulgent and food coma-inducing, that it worked. It still felt like a cabane à sucre, albeit a clearly unorthodox one, and I think I loved the food there even more than what I’ve eaten at the Montreal restaurant. My one complaint is that I do wish the cabane was able to offer the larger experience that one generally enjoys at a traditional cabane à sucre–such as walking trails in the surrounding areas, or dancing–but otherwise it did real justice to my food memories, and was absolutely delicious to boot. I won’t bother “reviewing” the meal further as there are a million reviews of the place floating around the internet. I’ll just finish by posting photos of the ridiculously indulgent meal that we enjoyed there (and that we enjoyed the next night, too, as we had enough leftovers that all six of us were able to take plenty home!). Sadly, probably my favourite dish of the night is not pictured–probably because I was too busy gorging myself on it–which was this amazing salad of arugula, cubes of ham, cubes of cheddar, walnuts and a dijon dressing topped in the lightest, crispiest oreilles de crisse (literally “Christ’s ears”) I have even eaten. I swear I could eat that salad every day, although it probably would not be a good idea.