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GOOD TASTE | Prime Time

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Move Over, Celeb Chefs: Butchers Take Their Spot In The Spotlight

By Barbara Ramsay Orr

  • The Lord Nelson’s handsome Herb-Roasted Rack of Lamb, a savoury cut above
  • Stephen Alexander, Cumbrae’s visionary Australian butcher, with Cumbrae Farms’ Texel and Dorset lambs
  • In 1912, Irishmen Burt and Fred Reardon went into business together, opening up an eponymous butcher shop that has moved to several locations in the city since then, including a York Boulevard store and the Hamilton Farmer’s Market
  • Paradiso’s Moroccan Chicken Supreme: local free range chicken with sweet onion and tomato stuffing, spice-rubbed potatoes, sautéed spinach and leeks, garnished with turmeric and balsamic paints

If there’s one thing a cook really needs, it’s a great butcher. Who else can tell you how much stewing meat you will need for Boeuf Bourguignon  to feed eight or discuss the relative merits of removing the fat from a steak before, or after, grilling? A good butcher will even share his recipes, give you suggestions for a party menu, and bone that leg of lamb so your carving skills will shine. The trend to more knowledge about (and interest in) the food we eat has triggered a revival of interest in the small personal butcher shop. People are looking for a closer relationship to the food they eat. Consumers want to know how the food they eat was raised, what the animals were fed and how far the food has travelled to end up on their plate. The friendly local butcher can reassure them of that and more. While many local butcher shops have closed, the survivors in our neighbourhoods are doing better than ever. Here are a few.

Walter Mueller is the Arnold Schwarzenegger of our local meat world, complete with Austrian accent and background. He could be the quintessential butcher: earnest, hardworking and totally committed to his craft.  Physically he is the poster boy for his trade, with ruddy cheeks, a big smile and a larger-than-life presence. He learned his skills in Austria, in a small town between Salzburg and Lentz, spending three and a half years in school and working in local establishments.

He came to Canada with his family in 1971, choosing Hamilton because his wife had relatives here.  He worked for Denninger’s for over three years, then for a small business called Springer’s Meats, then for a large chain grocery store. But he was an entrepreneur at heart, and made his first foray into operating his own place by buying a small store in Burlington called Roseland Meats.

“When you have it good,” he tells me with a shrug of his shoulders, “it doesn’t necessarily mean that better always follows.” He sold that business and moved back to the relative security of the chain store meat counter, but his itchy feet got the better of him again. In 1986 he purchased Springer’s Meats, then a modest two-building business. Today it’s a 56,000 square foot state-of-the-art meat processing space, with regional, provincial and federal certification, and with plans to become international.

Walter tells me I’d have difficulty buying a hot dog from any vendor in Southern Ontario that wasn’t made by Springer’s Meats. He sells to Metro, to Loblaws, is in negotiations with Sobeys and supplies many small businesses in the area as well. But it’s the bustling, always busy counter in their retail store at Morley Street and Parkdale that remains the heart of Springer’s Meats. Completely redesigned in 2008, the space is an attractive outlet for many products along with a fresh butcher counter where custom cuts can be ordered. Like most modern food purveyors, Mueller is committed to using local products as much as possible. He tries to hold to the 100-Mile Rule, with the result that 85 percent of his meat is raised in Ontario.  Most of his beef is triple-A grade, he carries Black Angus and ages his beef for a minimum of two weeks.

Mueller has seen a change in the tastes of his customers in the past five years.  “My customers now eat less red meat, and they don’t go in for the big freezer orders anymore. There’s a growing demand for local meat, like fresh Ontario lamb.”

Springer’s Meats, though large, is still essentially a family business. You’ll often find Walter’s wife Lena or daughter Manuela behind the counter; his son Walter Junior is the general manager, as well as secretary of the Ontario Independent Meat Processors. Walter is often there too, greeting his old customers and joking with those standing in line for sandwiches.

Mueller’s recommendations for the BBQ? “A couple of lobster tails and a good thick rib-eye steak, minimum 1½” thick, just salt and pepper, cooked medium rare. A really good steak needs nothing more.”

Cumbrae’s Meats on King Street in Dundas is another quality butcher store and one that is perfectly in tune with the move to local, additive-free and carefully raised meat. Stephen Alexander, a visionary Australian butcher, started Cumbrae’s after he married a Canadian girl and moved here in early 1994. He got his training in Australia, where his father and grandfather were traditional-style butchers. They taught him the skills, and he absorbed the life. He also worked with Bill Wilson, a well-established butcher in Sydney (and the husband of well-known chef Donna Hay). He grew up with the traditional family business model, which meant using the whole animal from nose to tail, as well as offering specialty service and individual attention.  “Cumbrae’s is an evolved model of that,” Alexander says. There are now three stores, one on Bayview Avenue and one on Church Street in Toronto, and the Dundas store. He has a special fondness for the Dundas location. “We’ve tried to keep the spirit, the soul, of the original shop alive. A recent facelift has changed the appearance but not the feeling of the store.” It still feels like you are stepping back to a different time when you step inside. The shop is small, the central aisle narrow and the staff not only greet you warmly but welcome your questions.

Prep kitchens on the second floor will allow the store to make more in-house prepared dishes, and will provide space for cooking and butchering classes that are planned for the future. There are also new aging rooms and fridges being added. As well, there are plans to expand the catering part of the business.
While Alexander is the face you most often see associated with Cumbrae’s, he’s quick to point out that each store has a great team. His team in Dundas are proud of the store and its culture and eager to please. Brandon Thurley is the store manager, Jamie Waldron and Terri Murza are butchers, and John Tjerkstra is the head chef.

Cumbrae’s deals primarily with local farmers and abattoirs. Roughly 90 percent of their meat comes from Ontario, 10 percent from Quebec, the odd bit from Alberta or Saskatchewan. Their animals are grass-fed and finished on grain and raised without hormones, drugs or chemical enhancements. They do dry aging on special order, and will custom cut to order. As well as high-quality meats, the store carries exotic items like hand-cured hams, ostrich, pâté and buffalo.

“The way to get the most out of your butcher shop,” Alexander counsels, “is to build a relationship with your butcher. If you don’t see what you want in the counter, talk to your butcher. Don’t feel you have to buy what’s in front of you.” He’s thrilled that people are back in the kitchen. “Food education is huge. And it is a stripped-back kind of education, with an emphasis on great raw ingredients.”

(Alexander’s recommendation for the BBQ? “I love a cowboy cut rib-eye steak aged six weeks or more. Just season the meat with some fleur de sel, cracked pepper, maybe a drizzle of olive oil. Finish with a squeeze of lemon. Don’t drown the flavour. Even better is a hanger steak, full-flavoured and earthy. Cook it to medium over a hot grill, slice it thinly across the grain and serve it with a salsa verde or a chimichurri sauce.”)

When Peter and Johanna Smolenaars bought J&G Quality Meats in 1990, they knew they were inheriting a legend. Opened in 1962 by Jimmy and Gladys Eastlake, J&G Meats had been the suppliers of custom cuts and freezer orders for generations of Burlington families. There were two full filing cabinets crammed with files that recorded the special requirements for each household’s freezer orders: how many roasts, steaks, or pounds of mince. Grandparents, parents, children – all had their different preferences.

“Now I have maybe two drawers of files.” Peter explains. “People don’t buy large quantities of meat anymore, and they certainly don’t keep it in their freezers for the season. Lifestyles have changed.” He has met that challenge with new packages for the freezer, mostly smaller and more focused – with names like the Cottage Weekender, The Bachelor Package and Vacation For a Week.

Before buying this business, Smolenaars had been a butcher for 25 years, ending up as the assistant meat manager at Loblaws. The move to own his own property, which he managed with a partner, was a risk. Does he ever regret it? “Short answer, no. I don’t regret it. If I hadn’t done it, I would probably be quietly retired by now. But we are all products of our own choices. We choose our destiny, don’t we?”

His smile and twinkly eyes tell me he is still enjoying his role as Burlington’s family butcher. “I’m pretty old school,” he says. Born in Holland, the youngest of ten, he came to Canada at age five, and was raised with the Dutch work ethic inbred. He started at Loblaws in Oakville at 19 as an apprentice. “I learned from the senior butchers. They taught you everything. They were great and really knew their stuff. I consider myself very lucky to have worked with these men. Hands-on training is the most important kind of education.”

The original building on Plains Road was an antique, and badly in need of renovation. Smolenaars did a facelift on the front of the store and enjoyed the continued patronage of his Burlington customers. A year ago, Smolenaars closed the old shop and reopened just a few blocks down the street in a brand new store with the most up-to-date equipment. Every detail of the new facility had to meet regional and provincial standards. It took more time and more money than anticipated, but the new store is a bandbox, with meat displayed like jewels in spanking new cases.

“The cost of meeting the government standards is too much for most small butcher businesses to afford,” he says. “But it is something that must be done. You can’t blame the government. You can’t change the fact that we need food safety.”

The customer base at J&G still values the fact that they can come to a small butcher shop and be served personally. “We probably know what you want when you walk in the store. You’ll never get that in a supermarket.”

Smolenaars strives to source locally as much as possible. He has two poultry suppliers in Dundas, gets pork from Stoney Creek, and most of his beef from Norwich in the London area. One of the strong features of this store is the in-house preparations. All their hamburger is ground fresh daily on site. They make their own patties, and stuffed chicken breasts. One of their biggest sellers is their chicken or beef meat pies, a perennial customer favourite.

J&G Quality Meats is still a family butcher shop. Peter and Johanna’s daughter Colinda is the assistant manager, and her husband Paul is the store manager. While Peter is often there behind the counter, you won’t see him so much during the spring and summer. He’s in charge of the market store at the Burlington Farmers’ Market, getting up at 4am three mornings a week from May to September.

“It’s all about teamwork, though,” he smiles. “We all try to work together, and somehow it works.”

Smolenaars’ recommendation for the BBQ? “I like a well-aged New York Strip. Don’t overcook it. We sell a BBQ-ready New York Strip that has been custom prepared with oil and herbs. It’s to die for!”

No discussion of Hamilton butchers would be complete without touching on the multi-generational saga of Reardon’s Meats, an immigrant success story filled with long odds and high drama.

In 1912, Irishmen Burt and Fred Reardon went into business together and opened up a butcher shop called Reardon’s. The immigrant brothers who hailed from County Cork, Ireland moved around to several locations in Hamilton including the Hamilton Farmers’ Market, as Reardon Brothers Butchers. The market itself was less than permanent: In December 1917, a blaze consumed the Victorian building that housed the market; a couple of years later, its numerous displaced butchers were relocated to a building at the corner of James and Merrick, which served as the Royal Meat Market until it too was levelled by flames in the ’30s. By then, the brothers had relocated to a storefront at York and Bay, and later still to York and MacNab.

Fred Reardon suffered a fatal heart attack when his son Jack was overseas during World War Two. Jack returned to a widowed mother and the responsibility to assume his share of the family legacy. He joined his uncle Bert in the family’s namesake operation. And when Bert died in the early ’50s, Jack adopted the name familiar to current patrons, that of Reardon’s Meat Market.

The York Boulevard location was also destined to change, expropriated for the painful development of Jackson Square in the late ’60s and the blank-slate razing of York Boulevard that followed, a landscape that remains in flux a half-century later. But Jack Reardon played it conservatively this time, opening the current location at King William and Hughson at the dawn of the ’70s. You’ll find the storefront there still.

One thing that has remained constant across all of those years is the friendly and reassuring presence of the family members, and its reputation for quality meats and butchering acumen. That’s the result of a lineage that has seemed at times to be predestined. Though not as dramatic as the first-generation transition, the business’s modern era was also notable for its dutiful attention to family legacy. In 1984, 68-year-old Jack Reardon announced that he’d be retiring and closing the shop. Perhaps struck by the value of a legacy business that had never succumbed to repeated obstacles, Jack’s son Paul took over Reardon’s Meat Market, returning from Toronto where he was enjoying success as a restaurateur.

Although the ’80s were boom times across North America, the prosperity of the era more or less bypassed Hamilton’s commercial core. Yet Reardon’s has stuck to its guns, drawing word-of-mouth recommendations and a loyal following through personal, personable service and constant innovation.

In 1985, they introduced the city’s first hotdog cart, and a few years later added a deli counter, promoting both a catering sideline and customizable sandwiches that are a favourite of the downtown lunch crowd. They’ve expanded their deli seating area as a result, and even introduced Jack’s Olde Style Corned Beef, a specialty item named after the father of current market patriarch Paul Reardon. The family business seems likely to continue on for another generation, as well; twenty-something Katie Reardon started work at the King William shop earlier this year, becoming the fourth generation to staff the family butcher shop.

Approaching the end of a century in business, the indelible mark that Reardon’s has made on the lives of its customers and the collective memory of a city stands as tribute to the quiet but potent influence that this profession can have on our lives. It connects to the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves, and is a concrete embodiment of our abstract ideals about civilization: Here you’ll find informed conversation, human connection and the chance intersections that make up a community.

Maybe it’s time to get to know your butcher. He really is a cook’s best friend.

Cumbrae’s Dundas 26 King St. W., Dundas, 905.628.4332
J&G Quality Meats 109 Plains Rd. E., Burlington, 905.634.0196
Reardon’s Meats 23 King William St., Hamilton, 905.522.3354
Springer’s Meats 544 Parkdale Ave. N., Hamilton, 905.547.1321

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