Saturday, October 17, 2009

Butcher's tour of Montreal

Here is an article I wrote last year. We are on a three day weekend and just 4 1/2 hours from Montreal, a trip worth making!

Teaching just ninety miles from New York City, I am spoiled by the food bounty that can be found there. I boast to my students about the dry aged beef, custom Italian salumi, quality Glatt Kosher veal and Eastern European smoked sausages that are now found in NYC. It is hard to imagine a city that has more variety from a butcher’s standpoint. I tell them that New York should be part of their studies. After a recent trip, I now think of another nearby city that I can direct my students.
Over the winter The Culinary Institute of America hosted a demo by Rougie Canada, a producer of duck Foie Gras located near Montreal. I asked if they would allow anyone to tour their facility. The answer was a resounding “Yes, please come up and see what we do!” So arrangements were made and in late April two of us from the school set out for Montreal.
By April in the Hudson Valley, the snow has gone everywhere except in the high country of the Catskills. As we set out on a rainy Sunday we pass Albany and head up the Northway through the Adirondacks. The rain squalls turn to snow and the temperature drops. Snow is visible along side the road and on the higher peaks. We stop at a rest area and the wind feels like winter again. As we get closer to the border the snow is gone and the flat farm fields span into the distance. Once leaving the border we head into Quebec and our goal, Montreal. We arrive just after noon and find our 1960s vintage hotel. Another snow squall hits and everything turns white for a few minutes but just as quick, spring returns with a little sunshine. With about two hours to kill we head to the Old Montreal section. Chef Bruce Mattel and I tour the tourist part of town with its cobble stone streets and many souvenir shops. The site of signs written in French and the old architecture gives a feel of being much farther away than the quick four and half hour drive from home. Hunger starts to creep in and we decide to find a place to eat. Before leaving on the trip a friend mentioned a place called Schwartz’s Smoked Meat. I have the address and we head to another neighborhood to find it. Bruce has an uncanny sense of direction and knows the city a little. We find the correct street and search for the restaurant. We find that Schwartz’s has a line out the door on Sundays so we walk around a bit. Schartz’s will wait until tomorrow. We are in a food neighborhood with lots of small quality charcuterie shops. We walk into Charcuterie/ Boucherie Hongroise, a small family owned butcher. The showcase is full of Hungarian, German and Polish style sausages. There are all sorts of smoked meats, hams and specialties presented in an unpretentious way. This is not a cafĂ© and there are no chairs, it is simply a quality butcher shop. This is where local neighborhood people shop regularly along with the local bakeries and cheese shops. The customer served in front of us orders a cooked sausage cooked and split on a roll with sauerkraut and mustard. We decide to mimic the order and also buy some spicy dried salami chunks and a little homemade headcheese. We eat our treats U.S. style, in the car because at this point we can’t wait. The sandwich does not disappoint. The sausage is spiced perfectly and the sauerkraut is cooked with chunks of pork in it. The headcheese is a little too gelatinous but very well spiced. It would have been better sliced thin on a roll as a lunch meat. I grew up on the stuff so I find it a great treat. We check a few more spots and decide beer is also in order. Good local beer is found everywhere.
Nearby, on Duluth st., is the very famous Au Pied de Cochon. Our Foie Gras hosts have suggested this location and colleagues at the Institute confirmed its intrigue. We walk in to find the restaurants crew preparing for the evenings work. Marc Beaudin greets us to take our reservation and arrange to eat at the bar, which is the front row for where the food is created. Au Pied de Cochon’s menu reads like a wonderful calorie fest. It is loaded with pork, duck, game, braised lamb, sausages and very little “middle meat” meaning there are no over-trimmed tidy medallions of loin. There is big food with richness. And of course there is Foie Gras. Rich seared Foie shows up throughout the menu. The owner, Martin Picard, has developed this menu with the goal of serving Quebec’s food and bounty. It is designed with eating in mind! He seeks out quality farms, local ingredients, seasonal specialties, and even has a connection with a single fisherman to bring in the North Atlantic’s bounty. We make our reservation and eagerly anticipate our return.
Upon entering Au Pied de Cochon we are greeted and seated at the bar as promised. The place is packed and the cooks are flying. Philippe Poitras and Marc Baedin are directing the floor and the waitstaff is in the dance of full service. We order way too much including another round of homemade headcheese and a Venison tartar as appetizers. Bruce orders “Duck in a Can”, a specialty of boneless duck and foie gras cooked in a sealed can for a unique braise. I order the “Pied de Cochon” or stuffed pig’s foot which is actually meant for three or four people. The foot is first hollow boned and then stuffed a pork and foie gras force meat. It is cooked sous vide and then breaded and pan seared. Another specialty is hand cut “frittes” cooked in duck fat. Rich and delicious! The food is splendid. I think of the menu and wish I could start again. Anthony Bourdain, when talking about Au Pied… “We have wandered so far from the roots of cooking – from our own roots- and from the source of our ingredients that we, many of us, nearly forgotten the simple and many-splendored delights of such fundamentally good things like pig, duck, the potato…and fire. Martin Picard has not forgotten” sums it up.
The next day we are to tour the Foie gras production. This will happen around 1:30 which leaves us a morning to further explore the city. Bruce knows the addresses of the two large market places. On Monday these markets are quiet and every one is recouping from the busy weekend. It gives us a chance to talk to local butchers and shop owners.
We first tour the Jean-Talon market and then the Atwater market. Both markets are European style with lots of open booths and stalls. The stalls are filled with local meats, specialty game, poultry and of course foie gras. We talk to the local butchers and discuss breeds and farms. These butchers either know exactly where the meats are from or they raise them themselves. We find every sort of butcher, charcuterie shops with fine pates, Halal shops with goat and lamb, shops with butchers cutting whole beef loins, sausage specialty shops with twenty types of grilling sausages. There is pork with some of the fat left on and a novel idea, marbling! And all the accoutrements such as specialty mustards, stocks, sauces, many homemade right on the premises. These shops are where locals find the food for the week. Don’t miss understand, there are large typical supermarkets in Montreal as well but these stalls represent the soul of Montreal’s food culture. Along with the butcher shops are many “fromagerie”- cheese shops selling “Lait Cru” or unpasteurized cheeses. There are bakeries, green grocers, egg shops, fish markets and florists. We find a Polish coffee shop that sells fresh homemade Paczki yeast doughnuts with a natural raspberry jam.
Soon it is time for lunch. We set out to try Schwartz’s again. This time we quickly get a seat and order the famous smoked meat sandwich. Smoked meat in Montreal is basically cured brisket covered with pepper and smoke roasted, basically Pastrami! You can order it a number of different ways but it is basically the same with the meat as the main event. We again order as locals and get an overstuffed smoked meat sandwich, cherry soda, a pickle and some non-creamy coleslaw. The smoked meat is cooked perfectly and slightly thick but very tender. We exit stuffed again.
We leave Montreal and head to the Rougie / Palmex plant in Marrieville, about 20 minutes drive. Palmex once a stand alone producer, has partnered with the French foie gras giant Rougie. We are warmly greeted by the US sales rep Natalie who acts as our interpreter. We meet Pascal Fleury an original partner in Palmex, and Jacque Besonette, a manager. They promptly shuttle us to the “gavage” farm where the ducks are fattened. Gavage is the process of fattening the liver by feeding it heavily. The ducks are raised on a separate farm to twelve weeks then trucked to this farm. All ducks are Moulards which is a cross between the Pekin and a Moscovy Barberi. They are almost full grown at this age and can handle the heavy feeding. Each duck is fed a specific amount of a corn meal pate twice a day. The corn is a high grade variety only purchased from specific distributors.
The feeding is quicker than I thought. It only takes two or three seconds to feed each duck. The feeding is done with a tube that easily slides into the ducks throat and is removed rapidly. The ducks are fattened within twelve days and ready for market. I was surprised to find that it only took twelve days to engorge the liver to a foie gras standard. The farm is divided into sections of ducks that are in various stages of fattening and when they are finished they are trucked out for slaughter. The barns are then power washed and very clean for the next group.
When we return to the plant we tour the new wing to be used for processing the ducks. The plant will produce the plain liver, boneless breast (Magret), legs, confit, tourchon of liver, rillets, and rendered fat to name a few items. The goal is to expand the value added items for both the retail and foodservice markets. The livers are graded with numbers 1, 2, 3 with one being the highest quality. We find that Rougie Canada produces about 200,000 ducks per year. Most of the plant is brand new and the entire place is very clean. It is divided between fresh and processed sections ensuring food safety.
After our tour, Bruce and I return to Montreal and get ready for our final dinner of the trip. Monday in Montreal is not the best night for dining out. Most restaurants are closed. Our host, Jacque, has found a location and we are not disappointed. We arrive at the Bistro Cocogne to find it primarily empty. No surprise on Monday. Our waiter greets us warmly and we begin another session of quality dining. We decide to try the tasting menu and are first treated to some fine British Columbian oysters. Courses are built on each other and we sample Salmon tartar, fennel soup with shaved dried chorizo, and again foie gras seared and served with a trumpet royale mushroom sauce. Our host comments on the foie and how it differs from the Rougie product. I must admit it was different than the previous nights version at Au Pied de Cochon but both are very good. I ask our waiter about the meats and all are locally produced. This course is followed by a very tender venison medallion, a wonderful local cheese plate and finally a pudding Chomeur made with maple syrup with a touch of homemade ice cream. We depart our host and thank him for the hospitality anxious to return the favor when he tours our institute.
Bruce and I awake the next morning to return to NY. We stop at the Atwater market one more time to grab a piece of local cheese and a nice fresh baked bread. A little taste reminder of the trip.
Montreal is a relatively short drive from the CIA and well worth the trip for any culinarian…especially butchers.