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The Flavour of Montreal
by Barry Lazar
Remember that old song? You say pastrami, I say bindenfleisch; you say corned beef, I say old fashioned. Of course in Quebec we just say smoked meat and everyone sings the same tune.

Smoked meat is one of the defining flavours of Montreal. The delicious blend of smoke, brine and spices permeates one of the tougher cuts of beef and makes it meltingly delectable.

Those from other cities may argue that there is little difference between Montreal smoked meat, actually created by Rumanian immigrants, and similar cuts served elsewhere. But subtleties are important. There is a reason the Montreal version tastes different.

Before refrigeration, meat had to be cured to be kept. The easiest method was to make a brine of salt, sugar, water and flavourings. And there is usually a dash of nitrite or other chemical to give the meat a pink colour and help ward off bacteria. The brine works well on a tough portion such as the brisket. The solution breaks down the protein and displaces other fluids in the meat and the meat emerges pink and juicy. At this stage it can be slowly simmered and sold as corned beef. Corn is an older English term for grain and in this case refers to the large grains—or corns—of salt that were used to prepare the beef.

Done properly, the meat is juicy and flavourful. Unfortunately, a lot of processors inject extra liquid and smoke flavouring into the meat. This increases the weight, and the profits, but it turns decent beef into bright pink rubber.

After brining smoked meat needs (surprise!), smoke. Each processor has its own method. Montreal's best known smoked meat emporium, Schwartz's, claims to smoke for 10 to 14 days. But the length of smoking doesn't mean that it is better. Quebec Smoked Meat, which sells an excellent product used by many delis in Montreal, smokes for about 70 hours. Both producers sell what is called an "old fashioned" style. This is heavily peppered and spiced before smoking. The finished brisket is tender and covered with a thick coating of black peppercorns. The brisket is a full muscle with more fat at one end than the other. Request for a lean or medium sandwiches determine where the portions are sliced.

Pastrami, the favourite deli meat of New Yorkers, is prepared similarly but is often made with a leaner cut of meat than the brisket.

Of course, the meat could be cured without extensive brining. Then it is usually cut into long strips and air-dried (bindenfleisch in Switzerland, brési in France, bresaola in Italy) or dried even further as a beef jerky. However none of these would make a sumptuous Montreal-style deli sandwich.

While smoked meat can be expensive, many delis will sell end cuts if requested. These are small slabs of meat that remain after most of the brisket has been sliced. The texture and fat content will vary and they are likely to be in uneven sizes and more heavily spiced than sliced smoked meat. However the flavour is fantastic. Dice a couple of ends and add this to pea soup, or chop them into a really delicious corned beef hash or fry a little and add this to scrambled eggs. The flavour of Montreal always comes through.

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