“You know if you had really, really been intent on entrapping me on my wedding night, you wicked woman, you would not have dabbed yourself with Joy, but in Essence of Smoked Meat. A maddening aphrodisiac, made from spices available in Schwartz’s delicatessen. I’d call it Nectar of Judea and copyright the name.”
Those words come from Mordecai Richler, the Montreal author of “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” in his novel “Barney’s Version”. How, I thought, would the 15 guys who were joining me for the smoked meat sandwich lunch at Mon Bistro spend the rest of their afternoon after consuming this “nectar”?
Some would argue that Montreal smoked meat or Montreal-style smoked meat or viande fumée as it’s also known is Canada’s greatest contribution to the world of cuisine. I would have a hard time disagreeing with them. And I may have enlisted two or three more converts at that lunch.
The easiest way to describe Montreal smoked meat is to say it’s like pastrami. Though I’m sure it would be unsafe for me to ever walk the streets of New York again, I would add two more words to that description. Like pastrami…only better. And what makes it better? Simply a slight difference in how it’s made.
Both pastrami and Montreal smoked meat are made by salting and curing beef brisket with spices. The brisket is allowed to absorb the flavors of the brine or rub for about a week, it is then hot smoked to further flavor and cook it, and, finally, it is steamed to provide the final moistness and tenderness.
The first difference between pastrami and Montreal smoked meat is the portion of the brisket that is used. Montreal-style uses the entire brisket. Pastrami only uses the fattier, well-marbled plate or navel cut. This would seem to be advantage pastrami, but the second difference is what sways it in the other direction.
Montreal smoked meat is cured in seasoning with more cracked peppercorns and savory flavourings, such as garlic, coriander and mustard seeds, and significantly less sugar than New York pastrami. I mean, really, sugar on meat? Advantage Montreal-style.
One of my favorite ways to waste time is to research the origin of classic dishes and I wasted a lot of time on Montreal smoked meat. As usual…no make that almost always…the findings were inconclusive, with four different possibilities being credible. All of them, however, put the timing at around 1905 with the origin being Eastern Europe, probably Romania.
Though it doesn’t seem to be in the competition as to who invented Montreal smoked meat, there is a historically legendary place to eat it. It’s the place that Mordecai Richler paid homage to in “Barney’s Version”.
“You may have heard the fanciful legends about Montreal’s world-renowned Jewish smoked meat emporium, Schwartz’s. It was rumored that Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen, popularly known as Schwartz’s, was established in 1930 by the respected musician and composer, Maurice Zbriger. Being reluctant to have his good name associated with a pedestrian eatery, he hired a manager named Schwartz to front for him. According to another myth, Schwartz actually founded the deli but lost it to Zbriger in an all-night poker game. Or have you heard the one about two elderly widows founding it? In fact Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen was opened after sundown on Saturday, December 31st, 1927 at 3877 St. Lawrence Blvd, near Cuthbert Street.”
That quote came from Cuizine: The Journal of Canadian Food Cultures, in an interview with Eiran Harris conducted by Lara Rabinovitch. “Our sausages and frankfurters are the kosherest in town” was Schwartz’s ad slogan (love that word kosherest). But today the delicatessen is mostly about Montreal smoked meat and an almost exact replica of a sandwich containing that meat is now available in San Miguel de Allende.
You may have heard of Smokehouse SMA (you can read about their smoked salmon at http://dondayinsma.com/2016/12/10/warning-smoking-may-hazardous-traditional-eating-habits/). Now, Collier Kear and Kari Siirala, the men behind Smokehouse, are producing Montreal smoked meat using what I suspect is the exact same spice rub as Schwartz’s. You can buy the meat to take home on the ground floor of Mercado Sano in the area that Smokehouse SMA shares with La Isla and Bodega Organica. Even better, you can go to Mon Bistro, as the gentlemen who lunch did last week, and have it served to you.
Mon Bistro bills itself as a Restaurante Canadiense and I couldn’t think of any other extra added Canadian attraction for their menu than a Montreal smoked meat sandwich. Or a much nicer location than their cozy and classy, walls of stone dining room.
Gilles Vachon, owner of Mon Bistro with his delightful wife Alexandra, is serving the sandwich very much like Schwartz’s. On rye. With a not too little, not too much amount of American mustard. Sided with a (suddenly hard to find in San Miguel) dill pickle. And very good double-fried french fries (I squeezed out the secret from Gilles that the potatoes were discovered at Costco). The only thing missing from a Schwartz’s sandwich was cole slaw and, if you’ve ever eaten at Schwartz’s, you will have seen a lot of very clean plates except for that cole slaw heading back to the kitchen. And one more thing about fries, pickles and cole slaw. Those sides are all extra at Schwartz’s and can almost double the price of your sandwich.
The beef at Mon Bistro had that candy apple red color that separates it from paler pink pastrami. The taste was superb. Lots of beefiness, pepperiness and spiciness. The meat was appropriately hand-sliced across the grain. The texture was fall-apart flaky as it should be and one of the joys of Montreal smoked meat is trying to pick up the delicious little bits, first with a fork and, when that flusters you, with your fingers.
The sandwich was very, very good but it wasn’t quite perfect.
A couple of the guys pointed out that the meat was a little dry and there were a couple of reasons for that. There’s no good way around the first reason for, when a restaurant is trying to serve 16 guys the exact same thing at the exact same time, they can’t be slicing off the roast and making sandwiches one at a time.
The second reason there may or may not be a cure for. In a Canadian delicatessen, when you order a Montreal smoked meat sandwich, you’ll usually be asked, “how do you want it?” And you will answer either “lean”, “fat” or “medium” (or maybe “speck” if you’re really drunk). I’m a “fat” guy but there was no chance of that at Mon Bistro as everything was quite lean. That of course is mostly the result of the cow not the cook.
Collier Kear and Kari Siirala from Smokehouse SMA are well aware of the lack of fat on Mexican cattle. And they’re trying to do something about it by using imported beef.
“About 30% of the smoked meat that Gilles served today came from U.S. beef”, said Collier. “We have to be careful though. Imported meat adds a lot to our cost. We can’t price ourselves out of the market.”
Regardless of the amount of fat, there is now another great sandwich to be had in San Miguel de Allende and, in a couple of weeks, when I do my annual “things to eat in San Miguel before you die” list, I can tell you Mon Bistro’s Montreal smoked meat sandwich will be near the top.
Mon Bistro is located at Calle Mesones 56 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. They are open from 2:00 pm to 10:00 pm, Tuesday to Thursday; 2:00 pm to 11:00 pm, Friday and Saturday; 2:00 pm to 9:00 pm, Sunday.