ATTN: CARSWELL, call for expertise: Montreal Smoked Meat: Past and Present, Purveyors and Perverters
These questions need some real on the ground knowledge of the Montreal food scene.
On the basis of no expertise whatsoever, I have always assumed that Montreal smoked meat originated in the mingling of Rumanian Jewish pastrami-makers with Quebecois traditions of curing, smoking and spicing meats. I assume Rumania because that is, I believe where pastrami originated. I say that because of the fact that it is one of the few delicatessen meats common to both the Eastern European and Ottoman tradition in Turkish a slightly different cured meat is called bastirma. Rumania for centuries was a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire and would have been able to act as an intermediary for both culinary cultures. If Bens wants to claim they invented Montreal smoked meat in 1908, let them (as long as you dont eat there). The more interesting question is what culinary traditions combined to create this product. Does anybody know?
Past and Present:
It should go without saying that by Montreal smoked meat, I mean the coriander seed and peppercorn studded, black surfaced product called old fashioned. I dont think the red-pink covered meat that goes by the same name, w/o old fashioned, should exist. By the way what pervert invented that one?
However I do suspect that what we now call old-fashioned is probably a far-cry from the original old-fashioned smoked meat of the early 20th century.
How is smoked meat prepared? I assumed that it is brined, spiced in some pickling liquid, and then smoked. Anyone know the details of the process? What short-cuts have been introduced over the years? Any special reason why are there fewer and fewer independent producers, other than economies of scale?
Purveyors and Perverters:
As far as I know the main current producers of smoked meat in Montreal are Levitts, Lesters, Schwartzs Hebrew National, and I presume some kosher meat suppliers as well, but a few more details are provided below. I assume that Snowdon Del gets their meat from Levitts because the last time (5 months ago) I bought a whole brisket there, it was cryovac Levitt. In previous years they sold briskets w/o such labeling, wrapped in paper. Could Snowdon Del have run out of their own that day, relying for the moment on a back-up supply? Do they use own meat, in-house, and another for deli sales to go? These and other vital questions await definitive answers for our inquiring minds.
I am particularly interested in learning about kosher producers because the Brookline kosher super market, the Butcherie, the best in Boston (dont snicker New Yorkers, but it is the best we got) regularly imports poultry from Montreal and is willing to add smoked meat to the list, if it has the Canadian equivalent of a USDA seal. By the way the same goes for kosher merguez from Montreal.
For the convenience of those who missed it, I add SteveWs very useful comments from eGullet on these and other suppliers from his recent post on the Katzs thread in the NY forum, as well as Porkpas wonderful memories of smoked meat on the Main, from the Montreal forum also on eGullet:
Chenoy's smoked meat the last time I checked(around 2 years ago), was a straight commercial smoked meat product(wasn't too good, when I ordered there at the time). Chenoy's even tried opening a downtown location around 6-7 years ago, but it didn't last too long.
Lester's, known for their delicatessen & having 'their' own smoked meat(they make the sandwich sized smoked meat packages, & sell it to the public). I don't know if I'm being feed misinformation or not, but I've been hearing rumblings in the last year or two, they don't actually make their own smoked meat. Could this be true? I thought they were one of the few commercial smoked meat makers, in addtion to being a delicatessen. Any one, clear this up for me?
IMO, the best smoked meat restaurants here, are still the two standbys Snowdon Deli(clearly the best smoked meat), & followed slightly behind by Schwartz's. Although the general consensus in Montreal, is that Schwartz's is by far makes the best smoked meat. After Schwartz's, the restaurant located in the West Island called Smoked Meat Pete is often mentioned. I find Smoked Meat Pete fairly good, although I've heard their smoked meat has changed in the last 2 years(changed to slightly worse smoked meat). Almost as good as Schwartz's I find is Dunn's, located in downtown Montreal. After closing for a couple of years(they never closed Dunn's in Ottawa), they re-opened at another downtown location about 3 years ago. Upon re-opening, they changed their smoked meat recipe, for the better.
The former manager of Schwartz's named Abie Haim, opened his Abie's Smoked Meat & Steak restaurant in the West Island around 4 years ago. Copying exactly the Schwartz's menu(absolutely no desserts served), Abie's also made their own smoked meat. Wasn't that impressed based upon several visits. Their smoked meat was too dry, & too lean. Abie's business partner, at Abie's Smoked Meat, left recently to start his own smoked meat restaurant in the Montreal West area. It opened around 5 months ago(can't remember the name of the restaurant), making their own smoked meat. I was there during the first week of opening, & was unimpressed with their smoked meat. The only other restaurant making their own smoked meat is The Main(just across from Schwartz's), that has been there for decades. I find The Main smoked meat, also too dry & too lean.
BTW of those mentioned above, Dunns, Snowdon Deli & Smoked Meat Pete don't their own smoked meat(it's made for them by commercial smoked meat suppliers, according to their specs). Montreal smoked meat(as we know it) was started in 1908, at the Ben's restaurant. Ben's still exists, but it doesn't make their own smoked meat anymore. Their smoked meat is awful awful(also they give very very bad service)!!! Unfortunately too many customers of smoked meat, want lean Montreal smoked meat.
Your mention of Levitt's brings back incredible memories. Although it might be a commercial manufacturing venture now, I remember it as a restaurant on The Main(Boulevard St Laurent) just south of Mount Royal on the east side.
At the time(probably 50 years ago), it was THE smoked meat experience in Montreal. I can remember looking forward to Saturday night dinner there. My mother and I would stand in line waiting for the Sabbath to be over and the restaurant to open. Then I would order my regular, a medium smoked meat sandwich(I wanted fat, but my mom wouldn't allow that) with double mustard, french fries and a black cherry soda. This routine lasted for years, until Levitt's decided to go into commercial manufacturing and shut down the restaurant. It comes as no surprise to me that Snowdon's meat is made by Levitt's because they always were the best.