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Foie gras makes doubter an indulger

Its many accompaniments only accentuate its rarity

By Chelsea Conaboy
Globe Staff / November 27, 2011
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It was not an obvious choice for an on-again-off-again vegetarian: braised piglet risotto topped with shavings of foie gras. But the dish seemed to fit the mood of the evening, as we sat in the garden-level dining room of Le Club Chasse et Pêche in Old Montreal, the dark decor the perfect accompaniment to a Friday evening that felt more like deep February than early fall.

My boyfriend, Yoon Byun, a Globe photographer, orders foie gras nearly every opportunity he gets. Such chances are rare in the United States, which was fine by me. I had long turned my nose up at the appetizer I saw as grey and guilt-laden.

But here where French cuisine is king and the fatty liver of a duck or goose is a staple of special occasions, I was determined in our three days to understand its allure. Three foie gras-focused meals later, I had learned what Yoon and so many Montrealers already knew.

“It’s incredible,’’ said Charles Chabob, the baby-faced attendant behind the counter of SOS Boucher at a market we visited over our weekend. By then I was nodding in eager agreement.

Truth be told, my interest in foie gras was sparked last year when a trip to France with Yoon’s parents brought us to the famous market Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse. Yoon’s mother, an expert in French food and markets, asked the butcher for the ends of a foie gras, cheaper because they are less presentable on the plate but no lesser in taste.

Back at the apartment, I took my first bite of foie gras paired with fresh figs, and I knew I was in trouble. It was delicious.

Now, with strong cocktails in hand, we overheard the waitress at Le Club Chasse et Pêche describe the foie-gras risotto as one of their specialties. We had to try it.

The risotto was warm and creamy with bits of tender pork mixed in. It arrived with perfect curls of foie gras sprinkled on top. Within seconds, the curls began to melt.

Foie gras is extremely high in fat. Like butter, it liquefies with a touch of heat.

Maitre d’ Lambert Vincent explained in an interview later that the foie gras is marinated in sweet wine and salt, then frozen. A mandolin is used to shave the fine slivers.

The risotto has been a fixture on the menu since the restaurant opened seven years ago, with one exception. The staff tried to swap it out during summer. The dish seems made for cold weather. But customers protested.

“We have no choice but to keep it,’’ Vincent said.

Why such passion for foie gras? Again and again, that question brought a vague response, as if it was beyond explanation.

“It’s the taste and the texture of it,’’ Vincent said.

Foie gras is a curious food: Creamy and subtly tangy. Perpetually controversial, with the enticement of a forbidden fruit. Absolutely unappetizing in appearance yet bewildering in taste.

It has been a prominent part of the city’s cuisine since Expo ’67 (a world’s fair that was formally the 1967 Universal and International Exhibition in Montreal), which saw a surge of interest in fine French food, Vincent said.

As more farmers in Quebec have begun producing it in the past two decades and the price has dropped some as a result, “we are exposed to foie gras more and more now,’’ he said.

In the day between one round of foie gras and the next, we found other French-inspired things to do. We studied Napoleon’s hat in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts exhibit on the French emperor. We went for a walk in the gray afternoon along the St. Lawrence riverfront. We warmed up with coffee and sweet crepes.

Saturday night, after trying and failing to get a table at Au Pied de Cochon, a restaurant known for its extensive foie gras menu, we took a recommendation from our hotel concierge and ate at Beaver Hall downtown. Our entrees were overpriced and overly complex. But the terrine of foie gras, served with a marmalade of orange and parsnip, did not disappoint.

Early afternoon on Sunday, we headed for Atwater Market. Housed in a massive Art Deco building in the Saint-Henri neighborhood, the market is open year-round. In warmer months its footprint extends to vegetable and fruit vendors set up outside.

We bought a baguette, sausages, cheese, and fruit. And we browsed the butcher stands for foie gras.

Ceramic loaf pans filled with pates of bison, caribou, and foie gras lined the glass case at Terrines & Pâtés, where we met Aleksandar Taksev, 35, a designer from Montreal.

This is where tourists come in the summer to pick up a picnic lunch to eat along the nearby Lachine Canal. Taksev had come for breakfast, buying his favorite coffee from another stand and a pâté of foie gras to eat with his toast. But the day had gotten ahead of him.

“I’m too late for breakfast, so I’ll have it for lunch, maybe with a bowl of soup,’’ he said. “It’s delicious.’’

As the women behind the counter in pin-striped aprons helped us to a couple of slices, I asked about why the people of Montreal love their foie gras.

It’s the “stand-out taste,’’ Alexanne Croteau said.

Plus, it goes well with bread and wine. The French love anything that goes well with bread and wine, she said.

Chelsea Conaboy can be reached at cconaboy@boston.com.

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If You Go

Where to eat
Le Club Chasse et Pêche
423 rue Saint-Claude
514-861-1112
www.leclubchasseetpeche.com
Entrees $32-$38.
Au Pied de Cochon 536 Duluth Est
514-281-1114
www.restaurantaupieddecochon.ca
Entrees $20-$45.
Atwater Market
138 Avenue Atwater
www.marchespublics-mtl.com
Picnic lunch for two of pâté, baguette, and apple, under $15.
Where to eat
Le Club Chasse et Pêche 423 rue Saint-Claude
514-861-1112
www.leclubchasseetpeche.com
Entrees $32-$38.
Au Pied de Cochon
536 Duluth Est
514-281-1114
www.restaurantaupieddecochon.ca
Entrees $20-$45.
Atwater Market 138 Avenue Atwater
www.marchespublics-mtl.com
Picnic lunch for two of pâté, baguette, and apple, under $15.