Take the chill off a Saskatchewan winter by attending this annual sausage fest in the heart of the Prairies.
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There are sausages made across Canada, but on the Prairies, the kubasa is king. And every year the best is crowned at a very festive—and very public—event in Saskatoon
Imagine a massive arena, filled with tables and tasters and colourful Ukrainian dancers bedecked in flowered headpieces, ribbons and red leather boots whirling to traditional music. A volunteer in full ethnic costume arrives with a tray filled with shots of vodka, each topped with a dill pickle garnish, just as a trio of accordion players stops next to your table for a lively serenade.
Then there is garlic sausage—coils and coils of it—to try. This is the King of Kovbasa taste-off.
Whether you call it kubasa, kielbasa, kovbasa or just Ukrainian sausage, these rings of chunky, smoky, garlicky chopped ham came west with immigrants from the grain belts of Eastern Europe a century ago, who claimed a free quarter section of western farmland on the Canadian prairies.
The area east of Edmonton, known as Kalyna Country, lays claim to being Canada’s oldest and largest settlement of Ukrainian pioneers, a region where you’ll find famed sausage makers like Stawnichy’s of Mundare, immortalized by the world’s largest roadside kubasa sculpture in the town centre.
While it’s arguably one of the finest local smoked ham sausages around, up there with the Polish version from Jan’s Meats in Calgary, AB, and the Ukrainian Co-op sausage in Regina, SK, only Saskatoon hosts an annual King of Kovbasa challenge to fête this popular prairie comestible.
It all happens in February, an ideal time for a lively celebration to take the chill off a Saskatchewan winter. We reserve a table at the event, an annual fundraiser for The Ukrainian Canadian Professional and Business Association of Saskatoon.
There’s a panel of local celebrity judges, but what really counts at this event is the “people’s choice” prize. The 600-plus tasters gathered here take their duty seriously.
We’re each given a score sheet. There are 11 sausages, sliced and arranged on a large tray before us. Soon, everyone around the table gets down to business, tasting, mulling and periodically cleansing their palates with vodka, beer, dill pickles and cheddar cheese.
This year’s entries come from butchers in and around Saskatoon, such as Prairie Meat & Co-op, the Park Café and Boryski’s Butcher Block. All are excellent sausages, so judging is entirely subjective. Everyone has an opinion and, as the foam plates are passed around, there is a lively debate. As one taster at my table remarks, “If it’s a good to you, it’s a good to you.”
I confess to being a bit of a kubasa snob. Some of the sausages are too smoky for my palate. Some have skin that I find tough or meat that’s too finely ground.
When I taste number 10, it’s a ringer, zipping my taste buds right back down memory lane to those smoky coils of chunky, garlic ham sausage that my dad used to bring home from the local butcher. It comes from the not-so-slavic sounding Smokehaus Meats and Deli in Martensville, a town just north of Saskatoon.
I’m not alone in my summation. In fact, this is the sausage that wins the day and, for the next year at least, is the King of Kovbasa.
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