A couple weeks ago I had the pleasure of helping judge a brisket tasting organised by Peter of Bison Basics and Alan from Torontovore. All of the entrants fall under the category that could be described as Montreal smoked meat. Yes, I know Zane Caplansky is quite clear that his product varies markedly from what one would expect to get at a Montreal deli like Schwartz’s and The Stockyards calls what they put out pastrami but categories need labels.
Torontovore has a story that details the system we used to judge the meat, all of the tabulated scores, and some aggregated comments. So as not to violate the Solemn Brisket Judges’ Code and compromise the sanctity of discussions had in the Meat Jury Room I will try to be vaguely non-specific about my comments. Take a look at his post for the full set of data, and prices for a kilogram of brisket at each establishment. The meat under consideration came from Caplansky’s, Centre Street Deli (Old Fashioned), Cottage Chef, Dunn’s (available at Costco), Goldin’s (Romanian Style), The Stockyards Smokehouse and Larder, and Wolfies.As we progressed through the samples it became clear that we were dealing with two categories of product: cured, smoked brisket and deli meat made to taste like smoked meat. Of the seven total, three (Caplansky’s, Stockyards, and Goldin’s Romanian Style) fit into the former category and were easily recognisable by their darker, deeper red colour and the more natural texture. All three of these needed to be hand-sliced.
The more highly processed products taste a bit like the appropriate blend of spices (especially black pepper) but the texture and colour are totally different. I can only imagine that we have been indoctrinated into accepting the tighter, more homogenous texture by the producers of processed cold cuts. The other selections have the usual attraction to producers of being homogenous, inoffensively middle-of-the-road, and probably have a longer shelf life. The more natural smoked brisket was a beguiling mix of lean and fat that played better with a broader spectrum of spice flavours and had a much more pleasant smoky aroma and flavour.
As you can see from Torontovore’s post it was a close-fought battle between Caplansky’s and The Stockyards. The overall scores actually had them tied with 568 out of a possible 700 points. To give a bit more depth to the results I note that The Stockyards was preferred by four tasters to three for Caplansky’s and that if we drop the highest and lowest score (Olympic figure skating style) from each entrant the score comes out 418 to 404 (out of 500) in favour of The Stockyards over Caplansky’s. (I do this not because I think any of the judges were biased but to account for the variability of different slices of meat from the same brisket.)
In the interest of full disclosure I’ll say that I personally liked my piece of the sample from The Stockyards best but Caplansky’s comes in a close second in my books. But, whether you rank them first or second I think it’s pretty remarkable how well The Stockyards did considering that many would also place their burger, porchetta sandwich, and fried chicken at or near the top of those categories in Toronto. Again, all the samples were judged blind and we only found out which was which after the tasting was finished.
To test the product in its natural environment I headed to Caplansky’s the next day and had a medium-fat sandwich. When heated and sliced by the experts, and served with their specially-selected bread this brisket was the same or even a little inferior to the sample at the tasting. Incidentally, the meat on my sandwich in the restaurant had a streak of brown through the centre of the slices where the cure hadn’t penetrated. I couldn’t detect a taste difference between the pink and brown parts so it seems more like a matter of consistency.
Perhaps sensing that we had all pushed our limit for artery-clogging richness Peter served a delicious and light honey cake for dessert. His recipe is available on the Pine Creek Honey website here. This event was professionally organised and very smoothly run. Many thanks, gentlemen.