I pushed through the heavy glass door at Hambar in Old Montreal as an experienced food journalist there to sample a Lyon, France-inspired charcuterie platter. Chefs at the sophisticated, stylish and busy Hambar make their own charcuterie. I was there for a special platter created in honor of Montreal en Lumiere, a large winter festival of performing arts, gastronomy, family activities and more.
Having written a recent story – What is Charcuterie? –- for a mid-February issue of The News-Herald I knew charcuterie as “dried, cured, fermented and otherwise processed meats of yesteryear.” Basically, sausages that had been historically preserved as a way to feed families throughout the year.
I was excited to see how the products created by neighbors to the north compared with those of Northeast Ohio meat artists.
My French menu promised
- Head cheese
- Blood Pudding
When I read the menu I was thinking mini andouille … the Cajun style sausage used in gumbo. After all, in my knowledge of language origins, the addition of “ette” turned the word into a diminutive.
Well, no. Hell, no. Rubbing his hands on his belly and pointing, waiter Adrian mimed internal organs. The English language – organs or guts or offal — just isn’t as enticing here.
Turns out this French-inspired charcuterie experience was also based in historic tradition. However, it was about using every part of an animal, all the blood and guts. In fact it went beyond using it and turned it into a desired end product. In some cultures, at least.
I remember head cheese from my childhood. My German grandfather would sit at his
gold-speckled white Formica table with chrome legs and eat slices of the jellied meat product for an evening snack. My pre-teen-self delighted in being grossed out by the name and the idea of head cheese. Now I would have to be sophisticated and eat it.
Boiled, seasoned blood with nuts … slow-cooked pork bits mixed with duck fat (rillette) … and liver pate. I took a gulp from the 2014 beaojoulaise to drown my anxieties and smiled. My silent mantra, “You love food adventure. You love food adventure.”
Then sophisticated Adrian from Paris – tall, skinny, dark haired, bespectacled wearing all black – placed an oval wooden board with five samples on my café table. And, a wooden box of baguette both fresh and toasted. The board of truth and a carbohydrate delivery system.
Until now I’d believed I liked all food. Well, except chicken feet. And, maybe tripe.
I started slowly with the pate en croute, something familiar … a slice of liver-based terrine wrapped in pastry. It something I first experienced in my teens. Tasty.
Adrian again used body language to explain that head cheese uses all edible parts of the pig’s head, including the tongue. It’s cooked with tiny dices of carrot and specks of fresh green herbs and held together in a gelatinized broth. It looked like a pale pink cube of ham salad or a loose meat Jell-O. So, I glopped it onto toast complete with pickled onions and balanced it to my mouth. Mild texture and slight pork flavor. It wasn’t my grandpa’s headcheese, but an elevated product. Acceptable when vinegary onions were included.
Moving a little further outside my comfort zone I spread the rillettes – shredded pork mixed with duck fat — on a toast. Slight taste of pork and rich fattiness. Not bad. Note to self: Better on fresh baguette.
Stepping out further, I cut into the andouillette sausage. It’s a good thing I didn’t know then that tripe could be included. It had a coarse texture and smokiness. Chew, chew, chew. Like slivers of hard chewing gum. The mouth feel was too much for me. I swallowed whole to end the experience. I just couldn’t do the andouillette. It’s a texture thing.
A gulp of Beaujolais.
Finally, the blood pudding. What I thought would be the oddest of the collection turned out to be the most interesting and quite pleasant. With nuts, copious clove and a bit of apple the dark pudding tasted like richly mulled cider. At least that’s the closest I could come to explaining the taste. The texture was more, well, like lumpy pudding.
As I pushed away the platter, I expected to find out I’d been punked or to see Candid Camera standing by. Nope. This is considered classy, quality French food. I promised Adrian that my experience had been a good one. And, it had. My only disappointment was my own lack of appreciation.
Note to self: Stick to foie gras and truffles.