Wednesday, April 18, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: Au Pied de Cochon Sugar Shack Cookbook by Martin Picard

                Martin Picard is a madman. But you knew that already, didn’t you? Foie gras poutine, whole roasted pig head gilded with gold leaf, used for no other reason than to appease the Midas-like affections of the genius behind Montreal’s Au Pied de Cochon, and the even wackier and excessive Cabane a Sucre in St. Benoit. In 2008, Picard released his first cookbook, dedicated to the rich, foie gras-laden cuisine of Au Pied de Cochon to huge acclaim. Civilians and cooks hovered over every page, salivating at the premise of what appeared before them, all the while speculating whether the gears that worked the mind of its author were perhaps well-oiled with foie gras and fueled by a furnace whose inferno ran on duck fat. It was a gastronomic anomaly that both frightened and intrigued at the same time. While conventional belief condones banality and lethargic nature as accompaniment to age, 4 years after his first cookbook, Martin Picard exhibits his trademark combination of maniacal brilliance with the release of The Sugar Shack Cookbook, upon which maple syrup spotlights a delicious narrative.

                Not content to simply provide recipes from the restaurant, Picard delivers a package of art, literature and cuisine co-ordinated to capture the essence and ideal of what maple sugaring is all about. Marc Seguin, the Quebecois artist behind the illustrations in Picard’s first book, returns to ink the humorous yet often morbid cartoons that fill these pages and perfectly mirror Picard’s evil-culinary-genius image. Short stories are interspersed throughout; one portrays a dystopia in which the world has suffered a diabetes pandemic and the last woman on Earth is set to finish out by way of gluttony in a sugar shack in the Quebec bush. The story follows her nostalgia, hunger and sexual frustrations with agony and desire as she gathers the materials and mise-en-place for her last supper. It reads like I Am Legend meets Babette’s Feast in a whirlwind of culinary rapture and bleak loneliness.
                Perhaps out of concern for the laissez-faire attitude many people hold towards maple syrup and the amount of work and precision that goes into the golden elixir that they casually slosh over pancakes, Picard details the process of harvesting maple water in an intensive chapter. Charts are supplied as a reference for compensating atmospheric pressure when boiling the syrup and Picard even refers to the Brix readings of the finished syrup when judging the finished product. While many may very well skip over this academic portion of the book in lieu of the recipes that follow, the information provided primes one’s appreciation of the feature product and inevitably fosters a greater understanding of the syrup’s tendencies during cooking. To further flesh out the experience at “Le Cabane”, a piece titled “Diary of a Sugar Shack” follows a year at the Cabane a Sucre personified through the eyes of the Cabane itself. The author, Rafaele Germain, impeccably captures the day-to-day activity of Picard’s crew and lends an original and remarkable voice to his protagonist. One shares in the solitude of the shack as the season ends and the lights are extinguished for the last time, leaving the Cabane in a sudden void of emptiness and longing.
                Recipes are food porn in only the way Picard can deliver. Excess and magnificence are never quite excessive nor magnificent enough as each recipe seems to one-up the other. A decadent breakfast sandwich floods the mind with thoughts of salty, fatty and sweet while a maple mille-feuille offers promise of silken cream and shattering leaves of flaky pastry. Due to the maple-centric nature of the book, one is advised to invest in a candy thermometer. Several recipes require the use of maple sugar in place of granulated and the process of creating maple sugar (boiling maple syrup and then breaking it to foster crystallization) is made far more consistent and less precarious with the use of a thermometer. It is also suggested to prepare large batches of maple sugar, as it keeps for several months and offers a plethora of uses.

                Sugar Shack is more than a cookbook; it represents a significant piece of Canadiana and an enthusiast’s ode to an object of devotion. A complete and entertaining exposé of the age-old traditions of maple sugaring capped off in delicious fashion. In Martin Picard was fashioned the perfect vessel to share such wealth and knowledge; passionate, fanatical and effusive. Artistic design ties a pretty bow on a comprehensive and inspirational piece of literature ripe with nostalgia and dripping in sweet, sweet maple syrup.

Review by Kevin Jeung
Sugar Shack Cookbook by Martin Picard

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