Many of us remember the days when almost every village in the Valley had its own tiny butcher shop. Right into the middle of the 20th century, it wasn’t easy to find places selling fresh, green vegetables in the Chateauguay Valley; but local butchers in a livestock-producing area like this one were a necessity. They had to be located within a buggy ride of farms that were each raising a few cows, three or four hogs, 20 or 30 chickens. When these animals ceased to produce eggs, milk, or offspring, they fed the family. Any extra meat provided a small income, so naturally there had to be butchers nearby. There were nearly as many small slaughterhouses or abbatoirs scattered around, for the same reason, and each butcher shop usually had its own nearby abbatoir providing it with local meat. Later, with the advent of cars or van deliveries, local people began to travel around to find favourite cuts or, say, one of Viau’s old-fashioned hams, which had to be soaked and then boiled before it could be baked — but was worth all the work.
These shops could be as tiny as Marc-André Barette’s place in Saint- Antoine-Abbé, or they could be as big as Viau’s in Hemmingford, one of the only survivors,partly because it was later and bigger. Usually, however, the shops were tiny and rarely sold much of anything but meat. In Athelstan, Clifford McHardy, who also had a slaughterhouse west of the village, ran one that was the centre of town. Local historian April Donnelly says, “People would stop at the butcher shop, go to cousin Gordon McHardy’s general store, then take their milk to the milk factory.” If they needed transportation, another McHardy was nearby to sell them a car. Clifford ran the butcher shop till the late 1950s. Donnelly notes that people loved to go fishing below the abbatoir, “because all the blood and leftovers from it would attract so many fish!” The meat business helped support many other families in town, including Doug McNaughton, Harold Wattie and Alex Duhaime, who worked for Bill and Lola MacFarlane, who ran it after 1963.
Saint-Antoine-Abbé’s little butcher shop was started in 1915 by Romeo Barrette. In 1953, his son Marc-André took over from brother Roger and kept it open for nearly four decades, until 1990, three years before his death. Marc André had seven children, one of whom is an optometrist in Mercier; another is Hubert, his fifth child, who says of their father, “he was such hard worker. The shop was open four days a week. He was on the road for two more in his little van, going between Huntingdon and Hemmingford, selling his meat and especially his sausage, which people loved.” Clients would agree with Hubert that Marc-André was “curious, and loved talking to people. And he was generous: I saw him many times tear up a bill, saying he couldn’t press someone he’d given credit to: ‘This is a needy family’.” Barrette’s was indeed famous for its friendliness, but also for its perfectly seasoned breakfast sausage, probably the best this writer has ever tasted. The family still has the recipe and feasts on those sausages at a get-together every June.
Bertrand Charette, who opened the Métro in Saint-Chrysostôme in 1978 (today it’s run by his daughter Manon), started with a little butcher shop in Russelltown Flats in 1956. He was not so much of a talker, like some of the other butchers; a gentle, shy man, his claim to fame was tender, perfectly grown, incredibly fresh local beef, good enough to eat raw, as tartare. Some of us recall how, as he sliced or chopped these luscious morsels for customers, one of his cats would sit at his feet and delicately tap him with a hopeful paw. Bertrand would stop, gaze at the kitty lovingly, and drop a sliver of filet mignon or T-bone off the cutting block. A few minutes later, this would repeat — all day, we figured. The beautiful life, we hope, of more than one butcher’s pet.
In the 1980s, however, these places began to close, usually because their owners were retiring. The fact there were no new butchers to run them had a lot to do with provincial farm policy forcing larger and larger livestock operations, which coincided with mass closures, across Canada, of the small abbatoirs, supposedly on the grounds of sanitation. Of course, we now know that if there are slipups that way, large slaughterhouses are more likely to poison many thousands of people than a tiny one. At any rate, the rules and bureaucracy surrounding the right to slaughter livestock became untenable for small businesses, and soon farmers were finding there was nobody within 50 or 100 km to deal with their stock. Since it was and still is economically impossible to transport six hogs or 20 turkeys so far and deal with the heavy bureaucracy and high fees required, most people stopped raising meat animals for local consumption.
Today, however, with the local food and artisanal movement growing stronger, there may be a future for the production of small amounts of local meat. The former Green Party leader, Elizabeth May, is a lifelong vegetarian; but one of her first acts as MP of the Saanich Islands in B.C. was to change legislation to allow small, local abbatoirs to thrive or re-open. She understood that if we really want safe, locally produced food, we have to have the infrastructure to provide it. In upstate New York and Vermont, there has been a resurgence of small abattoirs and “artisanal” butchers; four or five are now operating within an hour or so’s drive of Hemmingford. Here in Quebec, our governments officially praise local production and consumption, but it’s a matter of trying to get them to ease these restrictions. That way, small farmers might be able to restore local meat production if not to its former glories, at least enough so that a few charming little butcher and charcuterie shops, each providing different choices and derived from locally-raised animals, can spring up again.
We have not had space in this article to describe the many other such shops scattered across the Valley; if you want us to feature any, get in touch! We’re hoping to do articles on one-room schools, restaurants, dance halls or community activities, anything that’s bygone that readers would like us all to recall. But we need your ideas, reminiscences and additions! Send them to: email@example.com, or by letter: The Gleaner, P.O. Box 250, Ormstown, QC, J0S 1K0.