Au tête de cochon?
Sometime around 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, the guest of honour arrived our table, looking a little bit horrifying, a little bit lovely, and quite possibly delicious.
His head — or was it hers? — had been lopped off and, after much preparation, placed on an oval tray. Carrots and an onion were stuffed in its mouth and gold leaf sparkled on its snout. A knife was plunged just so into its forehead.
That pig’s head, slow-roasted and glazed with pork stock and maple syrup, was the piece de resistance of a 12-course dinner that kicked off the Ottawa Wine and Food Festival. Forty of those pig’s heads fanned out in the dining hall of Sala San Marco on Preston Street, one per table of 10, courtesy of the famed Montreal chef Martin Picard, making his first appearance at an Ottawa food event.
While his restaurant, which glorifies the most hearty dishes of Quebecois cuisine and the monstrous appetites required to eat them, is called Au Pied de Cochon, Picard on Wednesday served the heads of his favourite animal, not the feet.
“The brain,” our server said, “is edible.” Not one of the foodies at the table seemed to flinch. At other tables, pig’s heads arrived to applause and flash of cameras.
After all, by the time the pig’s heads were arriving – the meal’s mid-point, more or less – the room’s 400 or so eaters had been thoroughly exposed to Picard’s mix of earthy, excessive, unapologetically rich and frequently tasty fare.
The meal began with not one, but five, appetizers. Before everything else came a single bite that consisted of a deep-fried cube-shaped croquette filled with liquified fois gras – duck liver being one of Picard’s favourites to serve.
The notoriety of his foie gras fetish prompted outrage when he was invited years ago to be part of Winterlude, and rather than endure protests, Picard stayed in Montreal. On Wednesday, there were no protesters — just gourmands.
Blobs of foie gras, cooked sous vide, bobbed in the tureens of pea soup that followed. As with every course, the soup was served family-style, so that tables of strangers had to commune to serve each other, ladling soup or cutting bread or dividing up a pig’s head.
Next, Picard delivered a slab of cretons, the Quebecois spread of spiced, fatty ground pork, with a baguette. Just when you thought that the meal would be nothing but a celebration of animal fat came an endive salad — one that included a mound of ribbon-like fried pork rinds. While it might sound ridiculous, Picard’s rendition of what Quebecois call oreilles de Crisse was practically refined with its lack of ungreasiness.
The last appetizer at first looked unappealing but was anything but. A server delivered what seemed like a package wrapped in newspaper. When the newspaper – a substitute for cooking parchment, really – was unwrapped inside was salmon stuffed with apple, basil, onions and garlic and lemon.
Such was Picard’s emphasis on the rich, meaty and sugary side of eating that the fish and the endives seemed like something of a respite, during which an eater could brace himself for the heaviness to come.
While other chefs may seek out trends or flit from one country’s cuisine to another, it’s clear from dish after dish that Picard is almost fanatically dedicated to the direction dictated by his palate, his cultural traditions and where he comes from. Not surprisingly, the somewhat kindred Ottawa chef Steve Mitton, from the acclaimed Murray Street Kitchen, was one of the diners at Sala San Marco, and the second-hand report is that Picard’s food was right up his alley.
The three main courses seemed designed to make astound or perplex more conventional eaters. One was the pig’s head. Another was a massive concoction of stuffed cabbage, which contained ground pork and, at its core, more foie gras. The cabbage was framed by a lobster tail and a lobster head, and indeed, its sauce was something like a lobster bisque, enriched with veal stock and cream. The third main was a presentation of dense blood pudding slices on top of a large puff pastry, garnished with smoked herring, potatoes and chewy, salty whelks. The pastry arrived at the table on top of a slab of tree trunk, as if to emphasize Picard’s bond with nature and its bounty.
As the most avid diner at our table hacked off bite-sized parts of the pig’s head, slicing off bits of ear – chewy and surprisingly flavourful – and cheek – morsels of meat wrapped in fat — we were in the full throes of Picard’s singular and audacious, yet rooted-in-rusticity cooking. We were cutting up the pig’s tongue and chin, and sampling its creamy brain. Perhaps we were too removed from our forebears to want to eat those parts of the animal ever again, but at least Picard had given everyone the memorable experience of trying them.
There were four desserts. One was maple syrup toffee, or tire d’érable as they say in la belle province. We were young again, twirling popsicle sticks over maple syrup on ice to generate that most Canadian of sugar rushes. Indeed, Picard’s second restaurant, Au Pied de Cochon Cabane a Sucre, located in the Laurentians is dedicated to sugar shack cuisine, and diners, who had each paid $125 to attend the dinner, also received a hardcover copy of Picard’s new Au Pied de Cochon Sugar Shack cookbook.
Maple syrup also figured in the other desserts (and indeed, in the evening’s other dishes). A Mille Feuilles combined sheets of puff pastry, maple syrup, maple butter and chantilly cream. Picard’s sticky toffee pudding, served in the can in which it was cooked along with a jug of warm caramel sauce, was perhaps the most unanimously and deeply enjoyed course of the night at our table, tasting of apple, molasses, pumpkins and spices. Also appreciated was a nut-crusted, cranberry-syruped cheesecake, although I couldn’t bring myself to try it after sampling a few bites of sticky toffee pudding.
When the meal was done, Picard and his brigade, which has been assisted by Ottawa cooks, emerged and were greeted by a prolonged standing ovation. The chef, who seemed quite humble compared to more blowhard celebrity chefs, addressed the room.
“I wish you all a marvelous festival,” he said. But it will be hard to see how anything in the event’s remaining four days can top Picard’s epic meal for presenting unique yet familiar marvels.