By Elizabeth Keyser
6:55 PM EDT, March 27, 2013
Saugatuck Craft Butchery Class
575 Riverside Ave., Westport, (203) 226-6328, craftbutchery.com
Always know where your knife is. Never leave it on the butcher block and cover it with meat. And when you've got a knife in your hand, be aware of where other people are.
These were the first lessons at "Swine 101," a butchering class at Saugatuck Craft Butchery in Westport. "Swine 101" wasn't just about the resurgent art of whole hog butchery, it was filled with lessons about how meat is raised, slaughtered and butchered in the United States — and why the meat at Craft is different (and better).
Classes at Saugatuck Craft Butchery are so popular, they're now held bi-weekly, and always sell out. They cost $100, which includes tastes of cured meats, a take-home bag with a top-quality piece of meat and a 10 percent discount on purchases after the class.
Ryan Fibiger, Craft's owner and head butcher, said the popularity is a sign of several food trends. "People are interested in how their food gets to them. Home cooks want to learn more. People want an experience." He also gets a fair share of hunters. Most of the of students are men, and there are usually several women in each class.
Students donned aprons, washed their hands, and gathered around the butcher block, where two split hogs lay. One pig's side's was crowded with labels identifying all the familiar cuts of this most edible of animals.
The hogs were rare specimens, heritage breeds, yes, and much more. They reflect Craft's philosophy, belief in the distinctive taste of meat from animals raised humanely in pastures using organic methods. They reflect Craft's belief that it's healthier for people, animals and the environment.
"Ninety-five percent of U.S. meat is raised behind closed doors," said Ryan Fibiger, referring to Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO), where tens of thousands of hogs are grown in crowded confinement, fed growth hormones and antibiotics to make them grow faster and prevent diseases animals get when raised in that much manure (CAFOs produce about 300 million tons of manure a year).
In contrast, Craft's meat is raised in the open — on small farms within 150 miles of Westport. The farms use organic methods and no antibiotics or growth hormones. This high-quality meat tastes better than supermarket "box" meat, as it's called.
Heritage breeds have become popular with small farmers, and there are now nine registered breeds in the United States. "Everyone knows the Berkshire," Fibiger said, "But there's a whole other world." Today the class would break down a Durac and a Tamworth-Osslebrow cross. "It has a good fat cap," Fibiger said of the Durac, "The fat is nice and hard."
When the pigs reach eight months of age, they are brought to small slaughterhouses, where, one animal at a time in the room, they are stunned with an electric prong, killed, hung and bled. When the whole hogs arrive at Craft, "They're floppy," he said, "We hang them for five to seven days, to set up the meat." The head, however, needs to be used right away, and the head of the Durac had already been delivered to Chef Brian Lewis at Elm restaurant in New Canaan. Craft also uses the heads to make terrines. Head cheese, Fibiger wants to make clear, "is not gross at all," he says. "The face has more flavor than any other part of the pig. Think about what a pig does. It eats all day." The most used muscles are the most flavorful.
Fibiger grabbed his five-inch-boning knife in stabbing grip known as the "pistol" grip, and cut between ribs five and six to the breastplate. "It's more cartilage than bone," he said. Alternating the pistol grip with the more delicate "surgeon's grip," and often using his "off-hand," the one not holding the knife, to peel back muscles and to find the articulation between muscles, he broke the hog down into primals. They're the main parts, the shoulder (known as the "butt"), loin, belly and the leg (known as the "ham").
"Your off hand is as important as the knife hand," he said. He used a handsaw to separate the leg from the loin. Next, he demonstrated carving the primal into subprimals. He filleted a tenderloin. It's a cut more popular with his customers than with him.
| Know Your Meat |
|American consumers pay for cheap, inferior meat with tax subsidies (around $4 billion in grain subsidies to CAFOs), polluted ground, stream, lake and bay water (and more subsidies to remediate the pollution), and the growth of antibiotic-resistant diseases, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists' 2008 report, "CAFOs Uncovered: The Untold Costs of Confined Animal Feeding Operations." Studies by the USDA have shown CAFOS to be inefficient. And a study in Iowa showed that pasture-raised hogs produce meat at a lower cost than CAFOs do. United States farm policy keeps CAFOs afloat (in a sea of manure.)|
"What's the value of a tenderloin," a student asked, as Fibiger sliced away the silverskin.
"You can eat it with your gums?" Fibiger cracked back. He'd pass up a pork chop for a shoulder or blade chop because those cuts have more flavor. "The most flavorful parts are the ends," he said. The working muscles. "They bear 70 percent of their weight on their front leg," he said, "It makes it tougher, and more flavorful when cooked with wet heat."
He doesn't sell "baby back ribs" because they would leave him with boneless pork chops. He sells "real ribs," spare ribs, which he trims according to the season, leaving more meat on the ribs during warm-weather barbecue season. "It's a trade-off," he said, "ribs or bacon."
The belly is sold mostly as bacon, which Craft cures in sea salt and apple cider vinegar. They don't use nitrates, which means it's gray rather than the pink you'll see in supermarkets.
The students moved out of the way as Craft's butchers carried three more half hogs to the butcher block. The class divided into three groups, and a butcher guided the students in breaking the hogs into primals, subprimals, chops and fillets. As each student took their turns, taking the knife or saw to the hog, their faces showed intense concentration and determination. The class ended with a lesson in tying up a roast.
The take-home goodie was a thick pork chop capped with a thick, firm white layer of fat. Fibiger's final message was a cooking tip. "The sear is less important with pork than it is with beef" he said. "Start in a cold pan, bring it to heat for five minutes, then flip it. You end up with juiciest chop."
He was right.
Ryan Fibiger, Craft's owner, demonstrating saw technique. (Elizabeth Keyser photo)
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