Reinventing Montreal smoked meat

Jacob Richler on how smoked meat has become a fusion food

Photograph by Reena Newman

The London-based Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi may be getting all the attention these days for his inventive, vegetarian-focused cuisine, but be advised there is another new and highly original Jewish cuisine in play that has broader reach and will likely prove more enduring. I speak of course of that Ashkenazi wunderfood, smoked meat, and the fusion cooking growing up around it.

Fresh interpretations have been emerging almost continuously of late. For example, last month—just in time for Christmas—Loblaw’s launched an all-new product called PC Montreal deli-style dip. Though technically it features corned beef rather than smoked meat, one must give credit where it is due: President’s Choice is leading the way with the creation of an entirely original Montreal-deli-inspired product.

All this just months after a trendy new pseudo-Japanese restaurant called Dassara in New York came up with something altogether different: Montreal smoked meat and matzo ball ramen.

That was another new one on me—and understand please that this does not happen often to those of us who have spent a lot of time in Quebec. For smoked meat figures as prominently in the culinary vernacular of La Belle Province as does, say, foie gras in Alsace, black truffles in Périgord, or beef in Texas.

Needless to say, smoked-meat poutine is old hat and commonplace in Quebec. It is also not unusual there to see a few slices of smoked meat draped over a plate of spaghetti bolognese or a pizza—or even both simultaneously, as in “pizzaghetti avec smoked meat.” In a pub in the Eastern Townships, I was once offered a daily special of penne arrabbiata topped with a delicate julienne of smoked meat, and a few years ago in Lévis, across the St. Lawrence from Quebec City, I found a diner peddling a light lunch of “salade au smoked meat.”

Lest I forget, back home in Toronto, I use a can of “smoked meat de canard” (from a company called Gastronomie le Naked Lunch, of Sainte-Sophie, Que.) as a paperweight. So you should understand that when I first learned of these latest smoked meat-based concepts, I was keen to sample them, and thus assess whether or not a once-regional cuisine could really be poised to capture the imagination of English Canada, and maybe New York state, too.

My investigation began with the President’s Choice dip, which I sourced at my local Loblaws (for just $3.99). According to the package, it’s made from a blend of corned beef, sauerkraut, dill pickle, gruyère, mozzarella and caraway seed. If you think that sounds a little nasty, trust me, you have no idea: the resulting blush-coloured sludge is so much more revolting than the ostensible sum of its parts, you really must taste it to believe it. Or not. The fascinating thing is that deli dip is not actually a product of Loblaw’s kitchens alone. Instead, the credit goes to one Cathy Ferguson of Gloucester, Ont., who entered it into competition in a Food Network Canada program called Recipe to Riches—and won!

As for the smoked meat ramen, alas, I did not get to New York in time. The problem was not a lack of popularity for the restaurant or the dish—it was hurricane Sandy.

There is but one source for Montreal-style smoked meat in New York: Mile End, in Brooklyn, which opened in 2010 and was already anointed best deli in the city by New York magazine. Their production facility in the low-lying coastal district of Red Hook was flooded and destroyed in the storm. And even after two months of cleanup, its weekly smoked meat production is a little more than 300 kg—about half its pre-storm level. So for now, at least, there is no smoked meat to sell to other restaurants like Dassara.

So just when I was anticipating that some enterprising New York restaurateur might be planning a Hebraic spin on Daniel Boulud’s oft-imitated burger, stuffed full of Mile End’s finest medium fat in place of braised short rib, or even a risotto à la St. Leonard built on smoked-meat broth and spiked with shredded brisket, it seems that we will all just have to wait and see.




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