There is a tasty bit of our city in many cupboards around the world. It is the eponymous Montreal steak spice. Sure we have maple syrup and cretons and bagels among our delights, but the flavour that gets packaged is a biting combination strong on peppercorns, coriander, and salt.
Recently, I have seen spice mixtures with Montreal style on the labels in grocery stores in New England and the Maritimes; as if these words would let eaters pretend they were at Schwartzs. Sometimes, however, the ingredients seem off-base. There is a company based in Indiana that sells Montreal Steak Seasoning with salt, onion, garlic and other Amish Pantry spices.
Maybe its time to look closer to home.
There are as many kinds of steak spice mixtures as there are ways to prepare meat. Properly prepared, each blend should reflect a local flavour. For example, Asian versions likely have lemon grass or a curry combination leading their list of ingredients. Those from the Caribbean or southern USA might include cinnamon and allspice.
What makes Montreal steak spice stand out is the absence of these floral notes. Our spice mixture originated with eastern Europeans, primarily immigrants from Russia, Poland, and Rumania. They came at the turn of the century and brought us karnatzle (hard thin sausage), dill pickles, and smoked meat. The spices they were used to flavoured tough cuts of meat and helped preserve them. Cinnamon, mace, nutmeg and similar fragrant scents were rare . They might make it into the spice box or honey cake but they were too expensive for rubbing into the brisket
A good Montreal steak spice captures the flavours of the deli-counter. It should be a blend of heat and strong flavours: pepper and garlic, chilis and onion, mustard seed and coriander. Many combinations are available. Most of those sold locally seem to be made by E.D. Foods Ltd. in Pointe Claire. (1-800-267-3333).
This company has packed spices for 50 years. It claims to have over 500 recipes for Montreal style steak spice blends and to make most of the private label versions in supermarkets. Their house brand, ED Inspiration, uses plenty of barely cracked fresh peppercorns. Although this blend does have a little sugar, which can make slow cooking meats, like ribs, char on the barbecue, the flavour overall is quite good. It is excellent sprinkled on steaks just before grilling or shaken over potatoes cut into thick wedges, drizzled with oil, and oven-baked at 350 F until brown.