I have a certain old friend. Technically we went to high school together, but I first got to know him in Lister Hall, then at the Kappa Alpha house on university row. He studied philosophy, and after graduation he followed a girl to Montreal. There he fell victim to many of the city’s seductions: strong beer, girls, and cocaine, yes, but above all these, smoked meat.
For a while he lived only a few blocks from Schwartz’s, that Mecca of Montreal smoked meat. For a while he ate there every day: a sandwich, a pickle, and a cherry coke.
Montreal smoked meat is that city’s answer to New York’s pastrami: beef, cured with a concoction of spices similar to those used in corned beef, then rubbed with more spices, hot-smoked, steamed, and finally cut to order. In Montreal the cut of beef is brisket, whereas pastrami like that served at Katz’s in New York is made from the adjacent navel or plate. At Schwartz’s and most other Jewish delicatessens the meat is stacked a few inches high on thin slices of rye bread slathered with mustard.
There are many ailments with apocryphal causes. Mononucleosis, “the kissing disease,” is commonly attributed to promiscuity. When I heard that gout was often caused by excessive consumption of cured meat and red wine, I assumed that this, likewise, was a Victorian misconception.
My friend ate at Schwartz’s almost every day for the better part of three months. One morning he woke with a violent start. The weight of his bedsheet on his left big toe made him shriek in pain. He was dumbfounded. What was happening? The only logical explanation he could conjure was that, in the wasted stupor of the previous evening, he had somehow broken his toe. On this hypothesis he hobbled to the doctor. Within thirty minutes he was diagnosed with gout.
His recovery was slow and cruel. For one sober month he lived mostly on raspberry yogurt. He had to go without Unibroue’s many Belgian-inspired ales. No more crepuscular visits to La Banquise for poutine italienne. No quail from Toqué or blanquette de veau from Hotel Nelson.
No Montreal smoked meat.
He never confided this in me, but I imagine that he went through the same convulsing withdrawl symptoms of a heroine addict.
What I admire most about this friend is that he is able to turn the most painful, squalid memories into great stories. He now jokes about swapping gout stories with his octogenarian grandma.
Anyways. That happened years ago, but it has been on my mind this week because we made Montreal-style smoked meat at work. (“Montreal smoked meat” isn’t a protected designation, yet, but because I’m a gentile living maybe three thousands kilometers from la belle province, I add the word “style.”)
As mentioned above, Montreal smoked meat is traditionally made with beef brisket. We were curious to try using other cuts. We ended up curing an entire forequarter of beef, except for the neck, shank, and standing rib. We cured, smoked, shaved, and served it all.
Foodies, generally, and I, specifically, often wax eloquent about the importance of fat in a piece of meat. That being said, I much preferred the bottom blade, with its judicious fatty marbling, to the brisket, with its thick slab of external fat. The blade was also a darker, richer burgundy colour than most of the other cuts.
The leaner, more tender cuts, like the cross-rib, benefited hugely from the curing and smoking. Aficionados would no doubt argue that the deli meat made from this cut can not properly be called Montreal smoked meat or pastrami, but regardless, it really was good.