In late 2008, I was the chef at a small inn outside of Owen Sound. Walter’s Falls is a crossroad, a hamlet really, in one of my favorite regions of southern Ontario. Our province is a vast land, its geography as different from county to county as anywhere I’ve ever heard of. Farms speckle the countryside, growing everything from cash crops to organic tomatoes.
As a chef who wanted local product year-round, though, I found it difficult to create a menu that wouldn’t get boring by mid-February. Cooking from the root cellar can be limiting, so I would supplement with warmer weather vegetables and fruits to accentuate the carrots and potatoes from nearby farmers. However, I never had to buy meat from out of the area.
Without hyperbole, Ontario farmers produce the best meat in the world. Our cold climate forces our animals to be rugged; it makes them use their muscles more to trudge through snow and wet fields. When raised outdoors, pigs and cattle develop a well-balanced fat content. On top of that, our chefs are inclined to work with farmers, opening a conversation about what they and their customers want. And the farmers listen, some going the extra mile and bringing in heritage breeds that can produce the most favourful meat.
I was always a meat cook. I prided myself on perfectly done medium-rare steaks. I came in early for my shift to make sure I had enough time to properly stuff, wrap and braise rabbits. Breaking down a side of pork to use all of the beast is a chef’s wet dream. So in 2009 I changed careers and opened Sanagan’s Meat Locker. Not a huge jump, but enough of one that my learning curve was steep. Thankfully, I was supported by a product that was unfailing in its quality, regardless of the time of the year.
I urge you to cook one new thing a month. You will have been a part of something greater than just your table.
The seasonality of meat is something many consumers often don’t think about. We can get Ontario meat year-round, but depending on the animal, some months can be better than others. Grass-fed beef is sweetest in August, after the animal has been grazing for at least three months. Pastured pork that gets access to forested areas is exceptional in late fall, after the animal has had its fill of nuts. Turkeys that have had six months to plump up for the Thanksgiving table are always fat and juicy, less so at other times of the year.
However, advances in animal husbandry (thank you, University of Guelph) allow us to enjoy delicious Ontario meat in any season. And as consumers, it is our responsibility to learn how to cook this meat. Raising excellent animals is only part of what goes onto your plate. Meat must be butchered by someone who understands how you’re cooking it – fat and silverskin must be removed for a grilling steak such as strip loin, but not for a braising steak such as chuck.
I urge you to cook one new thing a month. Try a wild boar stew in November. A navarin of lamb in May. Duck confit in February. Roll the dice and make sausage in September. Whatever the result, you will have accomplished something and been a part of something greater than just your table. And every season is cooking season.
Words by Peter Sanagan