Au Pied de Cochon, Montreal

The French (and, doubtless, the French Canadians) have a term for the thing that happens to your body after a meal like this – it’s a crise de foie, or a liver crisis. My own liver is palpitating and throbbing, has likely become hardened and greenish in parts and feels as if it’s doing its job about as competently as Gordon Brown, but this is a small price to pay for a sublime meal. Even if it’s a sublime meal that makes you have to go and lie very still in a darkened room afterwards.

Au Pied de Cochon (536 Duluth Est, Montreal, 514-281-1114) is run by foie gras and fat genius Martin Picard. It’s a Montreal institution, always heaving with diners (who are, strangely, quite thin for the most part) – you’ll have to book, and book well in advance. This is a menu where you’ll find foie gras in almost every dish; where offal and fat are treated with something between respect and worship.

We opened with the home-brewed beer and starters which we thought we had cunningly selected to avoid too much richness before the main course. After all – salads and soups are the thinking person’s way to ensure there’s room left for pudding, aren’t they?

Not here.

Dr W’s French Onion Soup was based around a darkly glossy, rich and meaty stock, and came in a bowl large enough to drown a small family in, topped with a battleship-sinking amount of cheese. It was also extremely good, so he drank it all with little thought for saving room for what came next. My own Crispy Pied de Cochon Salad (see the picture at the top of the page) was only a salad in the very loosest sense – fatsome, hot nuggets of pork nestled with walnuts in a salad full of fried onions, roast tomatoes and steaming meat juices, any green leaves wilting gorgeously against the warm ingredients. On top was balanced a deep-fried, breaded square about half the size of a fat paperback book, sprinkled with some fleur du sel. Poked with a fork, it leaked an intensely porky, gelatinous mash of pork hock, made liquid by the heat of the frying. Something in that pork went straight to the self-control centres of my brain and prevented me from stopping eating before the plate was nearly clean.

Starters over, we looked at each other in panic. There was clearly no way in hell we were going to be able to manage our main courses.

Something untranslatable called a Plogue à Champlain arrived for Dr W. It’s a pancake. And a thick slice of home-cured bacon. And some crispy potatoes. And a layer of melted cheddar cheese. And a lobe of foie gras. And a ladleful of a rich, sweet duck and maple syrup sauce.

I realise that this sounds like a total abomination. God knows how Picard came up with it – and it doesn’t make the slightest sense on paper – cheddar and foie gras? Nonsense. But once this stuff is in your mouth, you’ll see exactly why this man is a fruitcakey, cheese-sodden genius. Utterly amazing, completely delicious and approximately 240% bad for you. Between moans of pain from a rapidly distending stomach and imprecations to various deities, Dr W cleaned his plate.

I’d ordered the Duck in a Can. A plate arrived, bearing a large slice of toasted sourdough bread covered with a thick layer of celeriac purée. Next, a waiter with a large, hot can and a tin opener came to the table, unzipped the top of the can and poured the contents over the slice of sourdough with a fabulously meaty schloomping noise. A fat magret de canard, yet more foie gras, some whole garlic cloves and unctuously buttered cabbage, dotted with bits of preserved pork sausage, slipped out in a balsamic glaze – the meat and vegetables aren’t preserved in the can, merely cooked in there in a sort of weird sous vide style. (Something of a shame, in that this means you won’t be able to buy your own can to take home.) Meat touching the bottom of the can had caramelised into a sticky, heavenly layer of goodness – and I have no idea how cabbage can come to taste so good.

This thing was absolutely enormous. Even if I hadn’t consumed nearly my own weight in fatty pork only ten minutes earlier, it’s unlikely I could have made much headway into the dish – as it was, for the first time in my life I found myself eating around a foie gras, because all this richness was becoming simply unbearable. My god, though, the aroma coming off this dish was incredible. So much so, that people at the next table turned, asked what it was and immediately ordered one each.

I tried. Really, I tried, but ultimately the terrible groaning noises emanating from my entire digestive system from the gall bladder down did for me, and I ended up leaving more than half of what I’d been served on my plate. I asked Dr W if he fancied a dessert. He looked at me with dull, bilious eyes and whispered, “No. I think I need to lie down. I’m not sure I’m going to be able to walk back to the hotel.”

We staggered back to the hotel. Slowly. We lay down. We have nearly recovered. We’re going back again on Friday evening.

For shame!

I don’t know what makes me sadder in this article – the behaviour of the animal rights terrorists or the final capitulation of the restaurant. Members of an animal rights group threw bricks through the windows at Midsummer House, attacked their conservatory with glass-etching fluid, used paint stripper on the doors and spray-painted the building with slogans in protest at the restaurant’s use of foie gras. Chef Daniel Clifford has, after consultation with police, reluctantly responded by taking foie gras off the menu. Yet another let-down for diners in Cambridge, in a week which has also seen Bruno’s Brasserie announce its closure.

I bang on at length about foie gras here. It’s delicious, it’s been around since the ancient Egyptians, and it is not necessarily a cruel product. I recommend a trip to any of the small farms in the Dordogne which practise gavage, or force-feeding, if you are worried or curious about the animal welfare issue. I visited such a farm a few years before I started Gastronomy Domine, and saw happy, fat birds who often line up to be fed at mealtimes. Prices for the terroir-raised French stuff are much higher than those for the mass-produced Chinese product, which I do have reservations about: reservations which stop me from buying cheap foie gras. I’m perfectly happy to eat it and serve it to my friends otherwise; foie gras is a tremendous delicacy.

A quick Google (I’m not doing these guys the favour of linking to their site) for the people responsible for the awful vandalism at Midsummer House reveals a horrible level of sophistry (their basic conceit is that the fatty liver is a diseased liver, and that therefore Midsummer House is selling diseased meat) and a pretty transparent credo – they’ve got several banners up saying “Ban foie gras! Go veggie!” Violent, militant vegetarians are a group that have always bemused me utterly. It’s all very well softly denying your canine teeth exist and lovingly stroking a chicken, but when you do this at the same time as buzzing a brick through a restaurant window at 7pm, you’ve got a problem.

They’re denying the little person on the reading side of the menu a choice. If enough people are buying foie gras in shops and eating it in restaurants to make it a commercially viable product in this country (which it is; Selfridges have stopped selling it because of the animal terrorist threat, but you’ll still find it in the food halls at Fortnums and Harrods, as well as at a myriad smaller delis and, of course, on a bazillion restaurant tables), then this looks a lot to me like those diners have weighed the moral case and come out on the side of a nice, juicy foie. For god’s sake – you can buy the stuff at Costco, which suggests to me that the demand is out there. It’s Midsummer House’s great tragedy that the restaurant’s charming position, off the roads, in the middle of an approximately unpoliceable common, make it a much easier target for criminals wanting to make a violent point. Commiserations to Midsummer House, and I hope that foie gras makes its way quietly back onto the menu when the fuss has died down.

If you know anything about the attack on Midsummer House, which the staff discovered on Sunday morning, you can contact police on 0845 456 4564 or call Crimestoppers, anonymously, on 0800 555 111.

Foie gras

Lunch never managed to make itself a very complicated affair on our holiday in Provence. Enid Blyton used Famous Five propaganda to imbue my childhood with the notion that food eaten outdoors always tastes best, and I’ve still not quite got over the conviction that she’s right. Happily, we were well equipped for outdoor eating, with a gorgeous terrace with parasols, two large tables and plenty of comfy chairs. Just down the hill was a shop specialising in foie gras. I think you can probably see where this is going.

The foie gras in the top picture is a mi-cuit bloc. This means the liver has been minced and seasoned, before being gently cooked. (I wasn’t able to find a whole mi-cuit liver to show you, unfortunately.) Mi-cuit foie gras is a very different product from the foie gras you can buy in jars; it’s cooked very briefly (unlike a jar, which will get a couple of hours’ cooking time) and needs to be kept in the fridge and eaten quickly. Its texture is almost buttery, and the taste is sublime, and not in the least livery. Don’t be put off by the cheaper bloc – it’s often just as good as a whole liver, especially if you’re lucky enough to find one made by one of France’s many proud, small producers. Goose foie gras is more expensive than duck, but try both – you may, like me, find that you prefer the delicate flavour of the smaller duck liver. Try drinking a good dessert wine alongside the liver.

foie grasWe ate this foie gras terrine at Bistrot Découverte in St Remy de Provence (mi-cuit again, made from small pieces of liver pressed in the restaurant’s kitchen). It was served with a sourdough bread and a dried fruit compote. You can make out the duck’s yellow fat and the fleur de sel that the chef seasoned the liver with.

When eating foie gras back at the house, we accompanied it with fresh fruit (figs and wetly ripe white peaches are fantastic with a good foie gras) and slices of toasted brioche. Be careful buying brioche for foie gras outside France – unaccountably, most of the brioche you can buy in the UK is packed with vanilla flavouring, which is just downright wrong with a delicately flavoured liver. I also enjoy foie gras with a good fruit jelly – a sharp crab apple or fragrant quince jelly work very well against the smooth creaminess of the liver.

pink peppercornsMy brother, who lives in Bordeaux, sent a foie gras to us last Christmas, accompanied by a jar of pink peppercorns (a berry, not a true pepper), which he insisted we try with the foie gras. I ground them up in my mortar and pestle and (as usual), he was right; they were brilliant with it. Pink peppercorns are hard to find in the UK outside those mixtures of white, green, black and pink pepper for transparent grinders, so I was delighted to discover a tree heavy with them in the garden we rented. We picked a few bunches and set to them with mortar and pestle. Delicious.