The pickles were sensational - a sexy marriage of sweet and sour. I kept reaching for one more, and then - well, maybe one more. Heaping bowls of these beauties, chunky and glistening green, were set about the table for the 12 of us, along with similar overflowing vessels of beet slices, pork rinds - piping hot and crunchy - pork pâté and coleslaw.
"Enjoy, enjoy, my friends!" exhorted Alfonse, our jolly host and server, as he returned again and again with fresh platters of food. He wore a checked flannel shirt and a long, hanging sash around his waist, his prodigious belly a visual testament to the mighty allure of the cuisine he offered. Beneath a scruffy white moustache, his ruby mouth kept reminding us, "Hey, dis meal is all homemade - traditional Québecois food for the peasant!"
My inclusion in this feast was a function of a longtime customer's graciousness, a quality no less appreciated for its constancy. James and his wife Roseanna had arranged an Eastern Townships day trip for a collection of friends. I was booked to drive the two of them, plus another couple, in my taxi; the rest of the group came up in a minivan.
We had crossed the border earlier that afternoon at Richford and tooled around the towns of Abercorn, Sutton and Brome, at one point stopping at a stable for a two-horsepower sleigh ride. The magnificent Belgians were almost mythical in stature and strength, regally tossing their white manes in the frosty air, stepping and snorting under the farmer's reins as they carved through the Québec countryside with 12 exhilarated Americans in tow.
Our trip culminated in the dinner. Alfonse operates a restaurant year-round, but this meal - which he offers only for a couple of weeks during sugaring season - took place in a small, rustic log cabin next to his sugar shack. To find the place, we negotiated a series of turns through harrowing, icy and frost-heaved back roads, but didn't that make perfect sense? The journey to the magical kingdom always tests the mettle of the seeker. Just ask Dorothy.
At the cabin entrance, we shook off the snow and, led by Alfonse, passed one by one through a wooden door into a compact room filled with the hum of cooking, dining and music. A woodstove crackled from the center of the space. On the far side was a half-walled-off kitchen with steam rising from pots and pans tended by two hearty women. "Bonjour!" the cooks called out to our group. "Bonjour!" we returned.
Getting my bearings, I noticed that the space contained but three dining tables: a long, empty table set for us and two others that were already occupied - one by a party of six and the other, even longer than ours, by a multi-generational family.
After the condiments and appetizers, the main dishes began to arrive: plates of omelettes, pork steaks, grilled potatoes and flowered tureens of pea soup, bright green and thick as - well, you know. My customers had taken BYOB to heart, and the table was planted with multiple bottles of wine; as soon as one was emptied, another instantly materialized.
Music emanated from an unseen sound system, all of it old-time, rootsy Québecois. If this genre has a signature, it's the irresistible bounciness and uncanny connection with the music of the Cajun people of Louisiana, who are - as a historical fact - long-lost cousins to the Québecois. So, laissez les bons temps rouler!
As the evening approached its crescendo, a particularly raucous tune began to play, and, throughout the room, folks began to clap, bang on the table and tap their feet. At the table filled with the extended family, a young father, toddler on his knee, picked up a couple of spoons and adeptly clicked and clattered along. Alfonse stood in the center of all this, arms akimbo, a Laurentian-sized smile across his face.
Just when you thought it couldn't get any better, Alfonse began to bring out the desserts - crêpes and two different cakes, one of which he referred to as "unemployment cake" for reasons I neglected to ask, surely missing a vivid story. All three offerings were sumptuous, not to mention infused - literally dripping - with maple syrup. Although I hadn't touched the wine, I felt stoned and happy.
Finally, James was ready to call it a night. Following his lead, I rose and moved toward the door while he rounded up his well-fed and well-lit chums. When Alfonse realized what was happening, he implored James, "Wait five minute, my friend. We will have the maple syrup on the snow!"
"Alfonse, brother," James held firm, "we have to get going. It's a long ride back to Burlington."
"No, no - you must stay! The maple syrup on the snow! See, we heat it up right now!"
The rest of the group, recognizing Alfonse's terrific urgency about the matter, prevailed on James to stick around. Soon Marie - Alfonse's ex-wife and head cook, it turned out, who still lived with the big man - handed a steaming pot and ladle over to Alfonse, who directed us to the front porch. The 10-inch-wide railing was coated with a fluffy layer of fresh snow, on which he ladled rivulets of steaming syrup. It instantly curdled to a custard-like consistency. With wooden Dixie-cup spoons, we each took our turn scraping and downing lines of this delicacy.
Under the influence of the wine, the food and the maple syrup, the 12 of us wended our way back to the parking area, reeling like diabetics in shock. Glancing back, I saw Alfonse beaming from the porch, waving enthusiastic au revoirs and throwing kisses.