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Quebec chef pushes limits of maple syrup
For three months each year, one of Canada’s top chefs trades the comforts of his Montreal restaurant for a “sugar shack” in the Quebec outback to study a local favorite: maple syrup.
Sporting a lumberman’s jacket, Martin Picard of the much-touted “Au Pied de Cochon” drives his tractor through melting snow to a wooden cabin deep in the forest, some 60 kilometers (37 miles) west of the city.
His aim: to concoct recipes and serve up dishes made with the sweet, gooey sap of Canadian maples right at the source.
“Everywhere in the world, maple syrup is associated with pancakes,” said Picard who promotes the ingredient’s use in haute cuisine.
“The possibilities for it have not been fully capitalized. So we decided, ‘Let’s research it thoroughly and publish a book on maple syrup’,” he told AFP.
Hailed as a gastronomic star, Picard fuses traditional dishes of “New France” — today Quebec — with hot new ideas.
And his experiments with maple syrup have foodies flocking from all over Quebec, neighboring provinces and across the border in the US to the backwoods kitchen he opened to customers in 2009.
He touts the sap’s culinary qualities but calls it recalcitrant: boil it too long and it foams and burns and won’t crystallize as it should.
For some dishes, he has devised special techniques. For ice cream, instead of using syrup Picard got better results when he transformed the sap into taffy, heating it to 113.5 degrees C (236 degrees F) then pouring it over fresh snow to create a soft caramel-like texture perfect for mixing.
The bearded chef has paired maple syrup with wild game, pork, shellfish, and a variety of exotic foods for a sweet, woodsy flavor. His cookbook includes a chapter on the properties of maple syrup, along with some 100 recipes using the ingredient in everything from marshmallows to meat pies, veal curry, lentil stew and jackrabbit.
It also instructs more daring foodies how to make maple squirrel sushi and maple beaver tail.
“I’m interested in trial and error with this product,” he said. “In classic French dishes we made, you couldn’t just substitute maple syrup for white sugar, for example. It doesn’t work.”
Syrup and sugar, he explained, have very different compositions. Fresh syrup contains two to three percent invert sugar (valued by bakers, sweeter, moist and less prone to crystallization). As the syrup ages, its invert sugar content can rise to 20 percent.
“So when we use it in recipes,” he said, “it can have a significant impact,” as in his syrup-stuffed duck. “It didn’t taste of maple, but the quality of the foie gras was extraordinary,” he said.
Picard’s cabin sits in the midst of his own Canadian maple grove from which he harvests the sap first collected and used by aboriginal peoples in North America.
Each year he plants 4,000 spiles — a spout poked into the tree to extract sap, a modest operation but one that produces enough sap for the three-month sugar shack season and his Montreal restaurant the rest of the year, with hundreds of liters left over to test new ideas.
Reservations for the sugar shack, which opens from late February to early May, must be made months in advance. The 2012 season is booked up, with some 13,000 reservations made in the first few hours of the first day of booking on December 1.
“We are leaving our mark and if someone wants to do other things with maple syrup, they will have a starting point,” the chef said.
Picard’s next project is pork. He also raises Duroc and Tamworth pigs on his wooded property, letting them roam free even in winter. He is keen to discover whether the Canadian cold will affect the quality of the meat.