Were I to write a book about the Ottawa food scene, I would dedicate a chapter to artisan producers and farmers. The nation’s capital is known for its brief stint as Silicon Valley North. History recognizes Ottawa for its lumber. But, before telecom companies, the timber rafts, or even Colonel John By and his regiment of somewhat unruly British soldiers, there were farmers. There were artisan producers who added “value” to local meat and produce. Both sold their goods at the market By would create in Lowertown.
Ottawa has a new resident artisan producer, Seed to Sausage.
When asked, the founder of the award-winning Sharbot Lake charcuterie company considers ours the best food city in Ontario (yes, even better than Toronto). Sporting a new haircut, Mike McKenzie explained how the food scene in Ottawa is supported by a network of creative and collaborative people, be they cooks (and chefs) or confectioners.
At first, McKenzie worked out of the garage of his Kingston home. His hobby grew into a family business. Restaurants took notice, buying his products.
In 2011, he purchased former Sharbot Lake Meat Market (12821 HWY 38 Tichborne) and left his career in the Canadian Armed Forces.
When he came to Ottawa to introduce his products to restaurants and retailers, McKenzie met restauranteur Stephen Beckta. Not only did Beckta put the charcuterie on menus at Play Food and Wine (1 York Street) and his eponymous flagship restaurant (226 Nepean Street), but he walked everyone across the street to meet Matt Carmichael. Back then, Carmichael was Executive Chef of Restaurant E18hteen (18 York Street) and Sidedoor Contemporary Kitchen and Bar (also 18 York Street).
“You don’t just meet one person in Ottawa’s food scene,” he exclaimed.
So, the intention behind McKenzie’s new venture, which was realized by business partner Ross May (formerly of McAuslan Brewing), Don Fex, and Kelly Brisson (food writer and photographer behind The Gouda Life), involved creating a distribution point for smaller producers. While Seed to Sausage has the capacity to work with distributors like ItalFoods, start-ups don’t.
“We still have a refrigerated truck.”
“And Ottawa seems to like our products,” he continued. “This area of [Centretown] seemed under-served.”
[While we chatted, I eyed a length of fresh Northern Italian sausage in the refrigerated display case. And, the Jalapeno and Cheddar Smokies. Jenn and I are loyal to McKenzie’s sausage. We usually buy links frozen from the Ottawa Bagel Shop (1321 Wellington Street W.). With the General Store so close to Chinatown, no longer!]
McKenzie envisioned an urban general store with period wall and ceiling decorations, something akin to the seasonal store he attached to his facility in Sharbot Lake. After renovations that began November 2013, the 100-year-old building at 729 Gladstone now sports 50’s-style interlocking ceramic tiles, a gold-coloured tin ceiling, neutral coloured walls, and brand new electrical systems.
The shop retails approximately 60-products.
The flagship is Seed to Sausage’s own 80-day aged rib, rib-eye, and striploin steak.
“We purchase our beef from Enright [Cattle Company] and hang it to dry in the shop in Sharbot Lake,” he said, glancing at the “steak” fridge.
The steak will retail for approximately $48/kg.
Does $48/kg seem expensive for purebred Simmental beef (the same heirloom breed raised by Dan O’Brien of O’Brien Farms)? What if said cuts were professionally butchered, hung to dry, and fussed over for months? As we discovered recently with Ian Slipacoff’s Premium Meats dry aged rib-eye, the price is fair. At McKeen’s Metro (754 Bank Street), un-aged and badly butchered “Platinum Angus” retails for $37.46/lb (or $82.59/kg!). Slipacoff’s Alberta Stirling Silver 60-day dry-aged retails at $16 for 12 oz (or $49.91/kg).
[Please note, Premium Meats ships its meat to your door free of charge…]
Dry-aging removes moisture, concentrates flavour, and allows enzymes to break down connective tissue. While there are methods, this really can’t be accomplished at home.
[Also note, dry aged beef develops a mahogany skin that smells of blue cheese. The “rind” is removed before sale.]
“I meet a lot of small producers,” McKenzie continued.
“My goal isn’t to have unique products in the store.”
He wants to expose craft products, so residents in Ottawa and its surrounding regions can ask for them at their local shops.
There is Chef Rossy Earle’s SupiCucu Diablo’s Fuego hot sauce. Ethnic Panamanian, Earle has gained notoriety in Toronto for her exceptional catering. She makes hot sauces on the side.
[Jenn and I used to bribe friends to bring Diablo’s Fuego back with them from Toronto. Again, no longer!]
There is Acadian Sturgeon caviar. Dr. Cornel Ceapa is developing sustainable aquaculture (aka: a farm) to grow sturgeon in New Brunswick both for eggs and meat. His efforts include international restocking of Atlantic sturgeon, which is a threatened and endangered species.
There is SIP Soda. Also based in Vancouver, McKenzie has been trying to establish a reliable supply chain with SIP for two years. Available in “lavender lemon peel”, “coriander orange”, and “rosemary lime”, Jennifer Martin’s “naturally crafted” soda isn’t very sweet. It is dry, by wine terms. McKenzie wants to be able to offer a spectrum of sodas at his shops, balancing sweeter Harvey and Vern’s with SIP.
With unmistakable pride, McKenzie explained, “I am so happy to be retailing Sara’s preserves.”
“Over a year ago, samples somehow came up to the shop [in Sharbot Lake]. I provided some feedback. Now, they’re on the shelf. She nailed it!”
When asked for his favourite product, May pointed to the steak.
But, “There are ‘no bad choices here’,” he added.
Seed to Sausage participates annually in the Great Canadian Cheese Festival, mostly to scout cheeses.
Cheese-wise, May, McKenzie, and Brisson are proud to retail Dutchman’s award-winning Dragon’s Breath farmstead blue; Mairposa Dairy’s (Perth) Lindsay Lenberg Farms Bandaged Goat Cheddar; Zacharie Cloutier’s (Quebec) sheep’s milk cheeses; Bush Garden‘s (Elgin) farmstead cheeses; and Back Forty‘s (Lanark) cheeses. All small producers, each one tends to be a family-affair.
Brisson recommends Carolina’s Dulce de Leche, which is also available at Ottawa’s Farmer’s Market on Sundays at Brewer Park.
“I sat on the stoop and ate a jar with a spoon!” she said.
A non-house-made favourite, McKenzie highly recommends the Pasta Tavola ravioli in the freezer chest. It comes from Belleville.
Finally, he explained his is a full service operation.
“Ross is here because of his extensive service experience.”
“If someone walks into the store craving pizza, it’s our job to figure [such] out and order one if necessary.”
“It’s our job to convince customers our steak is better than anything from the supermarket.”
So, Canadian artisan products in a shop with prized cheeses and 80-day dry-aged steak. Yep, I’m game. You?
The Seed to Sausage General Store opens Tuesday, June 17, 2014 (tomorrow).
Seed to Sausage General Store
729 Gladstone Avenue