Among gourmet meats and cheeses, steak dry-aged 80 days will make a carnivore cry. Really
The nice folks at the new Seed to Sausage storefront, opens June 17 on Gladstone Avenue, L-R founder Mike McKenzie, partner Ross May, manager Don Fex, clerk Kelly Brisson.
JUN 13 14 – 10:35 AM — The moment I arrived yesterday to poke around Ottawa’s first Seed to Sausage gourmet food shop, which officially opens next Tuesday on the periphery of Little Italy at 729 Gladstone Ave., founder Michael McKenzie and partner Ross May beckoned me toward a special steak they had just grilled at a neighbouring restaurant and wanted me to sample.
It was a cap-off rib, maybe an inch thick, cooked perfectly to medium-rare. The tender flesh yielded easily to a serrated blade and, an instant later, masticating, I was transported to carnivore heaven.
No wonder they so love their work, I thought.
I let McKenzie finish the bulk of it because he said he was starving, and I am not greedy.
Charcuterie — the time-honoured art of hand-processed meat, often cured as bacon, corned beef, or made into terrines or specialty sausages — has been a passion of McKenzie since before he left his Navy job about a half-decade ago as a sonar operator in Victoria, B.C., to relocate to Kingston. There, he literally cured meats and manufactured sausages in his garage, selling products — illegally, he confides today — to Kingston area restaurants who appreciated the quality and craftsmanship of his careful charcuterie.
In 2011 he purchased a vacant abattoir on Highway 38 in Sharbot Lake, about 130 kilometres west of Ottawa, where he’s been at it ever since — these days fully licensed, government inspected, dealing with local suppliers and selling his artisan cured and processed meat products through Eastern Ontario, with Ottawa being a main customer base.
The new 500-square-foot store, which officially opens at 11 a.m. on June 17, is his first retail venture outside Sharbot Lake. With the help of partner May (a former craft beer salesman), manager Don Fex (formerly a Target store manager in Orléans), and Kelly Brisson (a.k.a. The Gouda Life blogger) they expect to sell assorted meat products, of course, as well as more than 30 all-but-impossible-to-find artisan cheeses, specialty condiments and preserves, and other boutique gourmet items like hand-made pasta you simply won’t find in a chain grocery store.
Take our steak, for example.
Not only does the beef come from a very small 95-acre operation called Enright Cattle Co. just outside Tweed, Ont., where Darold and Kara Enright raise purebred black and red Simmental cattle, but the meat is carefully dry-aged at the Seed to Sausage artisan plant fully 80 days to develop deep beefy flavour with almost earthy undertones — some say a bit musky, in a pleasant way — you cannot achieve any other way. That’s the kind of attention to detail that makes Seed to Sausage so unique.
The vast majority of beef sold in supermarkets is butchered and vacuum-packed at the slaughterhouse, wherever it happens to be, and ages maybe two weeks while it is in transit to the store. That’s called wet aging, and the meat is usually bright red in colour.
While wet aging does indeed tenderize the beef as natural enzymes break down the internal strands and fibres, it does not contribute to flavour. The way to enhance flavour is to take it out of the plastic and hang it under very controlled temperature conditions to allow enzymes to continue the tenderizing process while moisture evaporates slowly from the meat. Time and evaporation contributes to flavour. Dry-aged beef is not bright red at all, but more chestnut in colour.
By far, most beef is not dry-aged because, depending on how long it hangs, the butcher can lose 20 per cent or more by weight through evaporation. Then there’s the cost of having expensive inventory hanging on a meat hook for days, or even weeks, before it is sold.
You can buy dry-aged beef at very good butcher shops, but I’ve never seen it as old as 80 days. “We buy our beef direct from Enright Cattle and hang it at our shop in Sharbot Lake,” McKenzie explains.
“As it ages we measure the days, the water level and the PH (acidity). We inoculate the meat with our own beneficial bacteria at the start to develop flavour, then take samples as it ages to monitor its progress.”
In this case, McKenzie sells his 80-day cab-off rib steak at $48 a kilo — which seems pretty expensive, compared to supermarket beef at considerably less.
But my consultation with Dr. Google reveals that’s a pretty good price indeed, considering Chicago’s celebrated David Burke’s Primehouse retails 75-day dry-aged ribeye at $75, or Pat LaFieda Meat Purveyors in New Jersey sells 70-day aged porterhouse at $114 per kilo. Here in Ottawa, you can order online 40-day dry-aged boneless ribeye at $46 a kilo from Slipacoff’s Premium Meats.
In that light, the price of McKenzie’s 80-day wonder is by no means ridiculous.
His popular sausages also sell at a premium — $18 a kilo for red wine and garlic, chorizo, maple walnut, for example. There are many, many more. Artisan-cured Seed to Sausage bacon is between $19 and $20; again, there are numerous varieties.
“Of everything we make, bacon takes the most work to produce,” McKenzie says.
“It takes 1 1/2 weeks to cure, then we hand trim and slice it before packaging. The pork bellies cost me more than any other product we buy — even more than most of our beef. Pork prices have just skyrocketed to the point we were actually losing money on our bacon before we had to raise our prices last week by about $2 a kilo,” McKenzie says. (A 350-gram pack of slice bacon sells at $8.49 — again, more expensive than supermarket bacon, but here you’ll not produce a puddle of salty water when you fry it in a pan.)
But for partner Ross May (photo above), his pride and joy is artisan cheese.
“Our philosophy about cheese comes from the mindset I developed when I worked with microbrewers — and that is, to support local and Canadian producers who make a really good product that may not be available anywhere else in town,” May says.
“We’re particularly proud of Bush Garden Farmstead Cheese from Elgin, Ont., just north of Kingston, made with cow’s milk. There, Nigel Smith has only 50 head of cattle and all that milk is dedicated to the cheese. He’s a one-man army who does it all himself.”
Similarly, May waxes with more than casual enthusiasm about Back Forty artisan cheese from Lanark, a husband-and-wife team “who run the farm and make the cheese — everything from A to Z,” May says.
Of course, there are many more.
In the near future, May says the Seed to Sausage shop in Ottawa will offer brunch kits on Saturday and Sundays — that is, take-out packages with four eggs, sliced bacon, two sausages, English muffins, pouches of tea or coffee, to make brunch at home for two people. Or, take-out plowman’s lunch with sliced meat, cheese, gherkins, artisan soda, and a small Nat’s Bread baguette. Prices have yet to be set.
“Here we want to focus on Canadian producers,” May says.
“They make quality artisan food right here at home, and that’s what we’re about.”
Seed to Sausage General Store
729 Gladstone Ave.
Store Hours (beginning June 17)
Monday to Friday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.