The secret is out. Out on Slop Press at least, that the best cold-smoked meat on the Canadian Prairies can be found on an unassuming street-corner shop in a town best known for its namesake purple berries.
Broadway Avenue, is the coolest shopping strip in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. While that designation may seem a contradiction in terms, so does this one: Bulk Cheese Warehouse, located on the above promenade, is a gourmet food shop that’s become a beloved regional gourmet shopping destination.
Owner-operator Scott Bartlett started the business in 1987 as a small cheese distributor for Manitoba Dairy. The shop’s less-than-gourmet name hasn’t hindered business. “There certainly are people who come in and say ‘I never came in here because I thought everything was in big pieces,’” Bartlett admits with a chuckle. “In the early years it seemed like it was a good idea to call it Bartlett’s International Cheese or something more retail-gourmet, however, we still maintain a cash-and-carry wholesale from our retail location; to chefs and hoteliers and they all agree the name’s just fine. It does give a connotation of value, which we know we offer.” And Saskatoon is small enough (just shy of 225,000 people) that word of the store’s specialty gourmet food selection spread among local foodies and beyond the city.
Born and raised in Saskatchewan, I’ll attest to the fact that the province — and most of the Canadian Prairies outside the major cities — is a white-bread wasteland. In stark contrast, Saskatchewanians possess a strong appetite for fine foods. The store’s become a grassland foodie Mecca. “Saskatchewan has an incredibly well-travelled populace,” explains Bartlett. “People here travel to get away from the cold. So they come home and they want what they had on their travels.”
As his store’s name suggests, Bartlett initially built his business on cheese, and lots of it. Typically, he stocks around 200 international cheeses year round and this number swells by up to 75 more around Christmastime. Bulk Cheese sells imported varieties that reflect local ethnic communities: Greek, French, Dutch, German and Norwegian. It also offers a wide array of its own sauces, fresh pastas, appetizers, salads and dips. And meats. Oh the meats!
Tucked in the back of the shop for the last 10 years is a butcher shop serving triple-A beef, grain-fed free-range Quebec chicken and duck, jerky, bratwurst as well as well-marbled Nagano pork popular with Japanese customers. And more. All under the seasoned eye of Bruno Koch, European master butcher, Bartlett’s meat mentor and sausage maker.
As a succulent corollary to the butchery, Bartlett began producing smoked meats. Smoked meat (fish and beef particularly) is traditionally homemade in these parts. It’s a rarity in stores. Rarer still, are Bartlett’s exceptional cold-smoked New York strip loin, rib-eye and sirloin steaks (also the store’s three best-selling non-smoked steaks) as well as cold-smoked chickens.
Bartlett was initially leery about discussing his cold-smoked meat secrets, wary of copycatting competitors. He’s looked into patenting the cold smoking term, but the cost was monstrously prohibitive. He’s now in “rethink mode” in anticipation of future promotion of these smoked products.
Bulk Cheese’s smoked meat initiative started a few years ago when Bartlett supplied four- and five-year-old cheddar to a guy who ran a small smoking business. In turn, the store sold the cheese. “For years, every Saturday he came and picked up the cheese, which we had put in cheesecloth bags, to hang in his smokehouse on Sunday,” says Bartlett. “One day he came in and told me he couldn’t do it anymore, he was changing careers.”
Bartlett set out to make this now-popular smoked cheese himself. Cold smoking, he discovered, is quite a fussy, technical process. “The No. 1 criteria is you can’t have any heat, but you need the smoke,” he explains. He purchased a custom-made smoker that produced smoke but very little residual heat. He then began experimenting with other methods, like chilling the smoke. “The problem with chilling the smoke house is you condensate all your smoke,” he says. Perfecting the smoking of cheese, he moved on to fresh meat.
“The problem with that is [cold smoking] is not recommended because of the bacteria that grow on things when they’re not in a cooler,” says Bartlett. In time, experimentation produced results. “We’re a little independent, so I can’t just hand it off to my chemist. We had to do it ourselves.” The result was safe, mouth-watering steaks, pork chops and chicken.
“We’re not the first ones to sell smoked chicken,” says Bartlett, “but most people will cure them like a ham. The same process you’d use to cure ham or bacon or anything else. We don’t cook them and we don’t use any cure, so that sets us apart from everybody else. Any way you cook it, it’ll taste like it was cooked on a wood fire.”
This growing smoked-meat empire has inspired skyrocketing smokehouse barbecue sales across Saskatoon. Though many of his customers are also do-it-yourselfers, Bartlett says the trend hasn’t slowed his business. “Not everyone is patient with their cooking. A lot want to pick it up throw it on their grill and go.”
Bulk Cheese Warehouse is located at 732 Broadway Avenue, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, 306-652-8008.