In any event, at some point, it got into my head, and that happened some time before I gave myself an opportunity actually to ingest this quintessence, some time at least 13 years ago, that I should have it, and there was only one place to do it. And that is, and was, of course, the paradigmatic and venerable, not to mention eponymous, restaurant in the heart of Paris called Au Pied de Cochon. Lest there be any mistake.
And the legend of this place is well-known, as it has been in the same spot for over 70 years, originally opening, as did so many establishments servicing the local tradesmen and their customers, smack opposite what was for centuries prior to its opening, the market center for all of the city, and probably for much of the surrounding towns and suburbs. I am talking, of course, about Les Halles.
By the time I got there, or at least got to the location, Les Halles was long gone, relegated to a transport hub at the edge of the city limits, and, in fact, outside of them now. But Au Pied de Cochon was still going strong, even in the new millennium. It is closed now, as are all restaurants in Paris and the entirety of France, because of the necessary strictures of the pandemic. But one hopes, or at least I do, that their day will return, sooner than later.
Au Pied de Cochon, being primarily a tourist-driven business (despite the ginned-up legendary association with the Les Halles markets), is quite self-consciously designed and accoutered like a turn of the century (meaning the 19th century, turning to the 20th; the period that came to be known as “fin-de-siècle”) brasserie. It retains the elaborate decor and expensive apparatus of a genuine classic Parisian gathering place: the maître d’ in a dinner jacket and bow tie, the wait staff in immaculate white shirts and jet black aprons folded over in half and cinched at the waist. And of course there is the menu, with many classic brasserie dishes, crowned (though that speaks of the opposite, top most, level of the pig) by the house specialty of an adult pig’s trotter, in its entirety, slowly braised to tremulous tenderness, and then finished in the oven, and topped with a béarnaise sauce. That is to say, this is the current offering of the restaurant (when it’s open). Thirteen years ago, when I sought it out for my great adventure, the dish was a far more traditional plating, without many extra fixings or additional culinary exertions or the sauce (that is, sans béarnaise). The traditional dish consists essentially of boiled pig’s feet, and what I was offered was essentially a dish made more civilized, though not to the degree it is served today.
There is nothing more daunting, in dining terms, than being confronted, with no instruction of course (and I had sought none beforehand, frankly), with a platter minimally garnished containing a cooked pig’s trotter, and its juices. I won’t belabor the telling of the process entailed in consumption. Suffice it to say that close, but polite, observation of other diners, especially those who dug right in, unselfconsciously, and, with the inference they were not only veterans of the dish, but authentically French citizens, used to such a delicacy, taught me that one ate the entire thing, whether with daintiness (which was my wont; I suffered worse at that time from a lifetime habit of trying to avoid eating with my fingers anything cooked, that is, cooked food more appropriately consumed, shall I say, in civilized company with the implements of dining: the full battery, if necessary, of knives, forks, spoons, each in formal service, dedicated to a specialized task of consumption, depending on the course in multiple-course meal, and the nature of the dish being consumed), or with the opposite of daintiness. That is, to make a bacchanalian event of this one dish and eat it with gusto. At least some of the clientele (as you can see in one of the photos attached) were in the regular habit of bacchanals, insofar as such eating contributes to one’s girth.
But to be clear, let me put it this way, pied de cochon, even, if not especially, in this citadel of its preparation, is not a “formal” dish. If you relish it, in all its bits—and there are many bits in a trotter, as it turns out, including all the tiny tarsal bones of the pig, all the tendons and other portions of sinuous tissue holding the appendage together, the shank end of the bone, the skin—you end up with a platter cleaned of all, but, usually, a small mound of un-chewable bones, most the size of a small pea. I noted many plates that looked, essentially looked licked clean, before the neat mound of spherical beans of calcium is assembled near its edge. I am sure the mopping up of all surface liquids was accomplished with the aid of many bits of baguette, in order to swab one’s dish—there is always plenty of sliced baguette (or should be) and, sauce, or no sauce, that inert bit of pig anatomy sitting on the plate when first served is replete with the juices in which the meat and other digestible tissue contained therein ended up being braised.
I tried my best. But I couldn’t get down to the stage of a miniature borie (the French word for an ancient stone hut) of bones. In fact, so rich was the dish in the natural juices and the fat, I was full, long before I reached the critical stage of sucking out all the goodness (or so I’m told is what it is; I have to take it on faith). Yet, I survived to tell the tale. And, in the end, as Ernest Hemingway would say, “it was good.”
I did take some photos to commemorate the visit, as it’s a quintessential, if highly touristic stop. And, I should add, it’s a full and complete and very well prepared typical brasserie menu, in case you are not an avid fan of eating animal appendages: including seafood, shellfish, and other meats.
At the door, the iconic signifier of the house specialty, a life-size brass casting of a pig’s trotter serves as the handle (the photo in the upper left). There are two levels of tables for dining, and the decor is superbly executed in the admittedly now stereotypical style of so many far more authentic (because they are that old) fin de siècle bistros and brasseries all over France.