Smoked Meat’s my Bag

Pouch Prandial

You can buy Montreal’s famous smoked meat in plastic pouches, which deploys a familiar technology: shrink-wrapping food to shield it from atmospheric oxygen. It preserves the food for a time, a week or two in fridge usually. Some packs can be frozen, too.

The well-known Cryovac technology is a particular form of this sealing method. The kicker in smoked meat is you boil the bag. It replicates to a degree steaming the smoked meat brisket in the restaurant before slicing and serving.

In turn, heating in a bag has older roots, viz. the postwar development of sous vide cookery and Cryovac again, as I mentioned in this post.

I had seen for some years in the market, and recently tried, Schwartz smoked meat in a pouch distributed in Toronto by Costco. Schwartz smoked meat originated of course at the hallowed Schwartz restaurant in Montreal, formally the Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen.

In recent times the eatery was purchased by the late husband of singer Celine Dion, and commercialization of its iconic product followed. I thought this was a great idea. While the restaurant continues, its folksy interior remains unchanged on a rapidly changing St. Laurent Boul. The line extension, we can call it, simply spreads the brand further.

Let’s remember smoked meat, as any cured meat, was originally a form of preservation. The original function – lengthened keeping quality – ended by creating a gastronomic symbol, unlikely as such fate was. So vacuum-sealing small amounts for kitchen use just extends the original idea.

Still, it took me years to buy Schwartz’ version. Don’t we all see things nominally attractive to try, a shop to walk into say – a pub for the beer-minded need I add – but hold to the habitual pattern until lo, the time is right.

 

 

As well though, this was not the first time I ate pouched smoked meat. Smoked meat in small boil-bags was available 50-60 years ago in Montreal. I recall mainly the Coorsh brand, a local firm with a plant near a rail line a quarter-mile from where we lived, north of Coronation School on Victoria Street where I did assembly every school day.

I used to drive around the plant on my bike, and up and down the rail line. Even then I found industrial establishments of great interest, e.g. too the Seven-Up bottling line in the plant now a car dealership on Jean Talon Blvd.

Coorsh was a meat-packing plant per se, not associated with a restaurant. Lester’s was both a plant and restaurant and the factory still goes strong, making an excellent smoked meat. There was, if memory serves, also a Hygrade smoked meat, or at least a favoured line of hot dogs.

The Coorsh version of 50 years ago was not quite satisfactory, a little rubbery in texture and rather salty. Still, it delivered something of the experience. So I knew generally what to expect, in part why I held back from sampling the Schwartz version.

 

 

When I finally did, I thought it was very good, but not really like the restaurant version. It reminded me oddly of different forms of cured beef, an assembly if you will: English salt beef, regular corned beef, even some smoked meat not from Schwartz. Well a certain Schwartz tang too, yes.

I suppose the further processing to bring it to Toronto altered it somewhat, or perhaps the curing and spicing were adjusted to this end. In any case, it is very good.

While not cheap, we found one packet easily served two people. This would go great in the Irish way with boiled potato and cabbage, and is excellent in sandwiches. It could be minced for addition say to a hamburger grind.

“You can’t go home again”, who wrote that? Thomas Wolfe I think. It’s true and it’s not. In the smoked meat world, you can sit at Schwartz boul. St. Laurent in 2022 and be brought back to 1970 when a walk from McGill University, over an eastern flank of Mount Royal, would take you to a royal lunch.

Royal it was despite the down-market ambience, to a small group in the city anyway, as its bagel resource. No one would have dreamt the wider world would take notice of such things. But it did, finally, including all segments of Quebec society.

 

 

In 2012 Radio-Canada, the French-language branch of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, conducted a tasting of pouched smoked meat. It convened a panel of local mavens – fifth estate and restaurant types.

Object: to see if a selection of pouched brands approached “les grands classiques“, if they tasted as at the restaurant, in other words. I was surprised to see that many of the old labels continue. Coorsh and Hygrade were present, albeit owned now by the agri-business giant Maple Leaf Foods, And many new brands have joined the fold.

An interesting and revealing segment it was, as both high- and low-priced versions found favour, for different reasons.

Smoked meat, food par excellence of an aspirant middle class in my era of Montreal, was still an occasional treat, in my quarter of Montreal anyway. Its cost explained this, downhome as smoked meat was.

We used to talk about it more than sample it, if truth be told. The story handed down by mom was, father Louis would take the family for smoked meat sandwiches when a few extra dollars magically appeared.

Not a common occurrence on Esplanade Street, then, east of St Laurent Blvd. But when the cards came in they went to – I still remember the name – Zeitz on St-Laurent, “the Main” as it was known for generations. I never went there but Schwartz I imagine rendered, and still does, the same experience.

So for me, sampling Schwartz’ pouch version means a lot and probably would have regardless of its taste. Its good flavour was just a bonus, vous savez.*

*For those inclined to home preservation and curing, YouTube offers many tutorials on how to make smoked meat. Some efforts look remarkably good. Instruction abounds in both French and English. The same thing applies (well, en anglais) for Canadian back or “peameal” bacon, at its best another A-lister of the cured clan. Yet, for peameal fate never smiled the same way, as undeniable as it may be unjust.

 

 

 

6 thoughts on “Smoked Meat’s my Bag”

  1. I wish Montreal smoked meat had wider distribution. I’ve always wanted to try it. I’m sure it’s possible to get it shipped, but it must be pricey.

    It’s a bit odd to me that it hasn’t expanded its range similar to the way Carolina barbeque is all over now that we have a lot more smoking entrepreneurs.

    Reply
    • From what I know, Schwartz took the most steps to expand distribution, after the late Rene Angelil bought it with investors, but still the impact was relatively minimal. I think it reflects, same with back bacon remaining not even a Canadian but more an Ontario specialty, our smaller population but also our diffidence as a people

      Poutine succeeded internationally, true, but generically and almost by accident.

      The Schwartz sandwich is great. I would say very similar though to the best pastrami I’ve had. The deli in NYC that closed, on the East Side near Carnegie Hall, was superb. Easily as good as Schwartz imo.

      Reply
  2. Great memories in here! I spent a lot of time in Montreal in the early 90s. Not as hallowed or far back as your memories, but cherished nonetheless. This brought me back. Great post, Gary! But now I’m hungry…

    Reply

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