I have never had any illusions that meat just appears in the grocery store, headless, legless, and wrapped in paper or plastic. My circle of close friends includes hunters and fisherman, so I often get emails with photos of successful kills held aloft next to proud grins. And I relish getting deliveries of homemade sausages, cuts of wild boar and venison, whole crabs, and more. But until the EcoFarm’s 2013 Butchery Skills Seminar last week, I had never seen a whole carcass broken down into saleable cuts.
Master butcher Rian Rinn, who will be opening his own shop in Santa Rosa later this year, and Marsha McBride, executive chef and owner of Café Rouge in Berkeley, led the all-day demonstration punctuated by lively discussions with the audience. Attendees hailed from all over the country—as far away as Illinois and as close as Carmel Valley—and our experience with raising and butchering livestock ran the gamut. We were a crowd comprised of seasoned ranchers, enthusiastic consumers and everything in between.
Shae Lynn and Kevin Watt of Early Bird Ranch in Pescadero provided a forest-raised pig for our first demonstration: half-hog cutting.
Pointing at the pig, Rinn instructed while we repeated, “Shoulder.” Shoulder. “Loin.” Loin. “Belly.” Belly. “Leg.” Leg. Then, armed with only a chef’s knife, a flexible boning knife and a saw that he used sparingly, Rinn skillfully guided us through cutting the pig into primals while offering suggestions for profitability. Marsha contributed cooking tips, including how to use the ears—blanched and atop a salad; the skin—in cotechino; and the leaf lard—for flaky, tender pastry dough.
Chef and restaurateur Jesse Cool of CoolEatz and Carlos Canada, executive chef of her Flea Street Café, whisked some of the freshly cut meat into the kitchen for our appetizers and dinner at the end of the day.
Rinn brought out the other half of the pig and focused on custom cuts and creating value-added artisan products. He detailed how to dry cure and age the leg to make prosciutto. When he demonstrated how to cut, roll, and tie a porchetta from the loin and belly of the pig, McBride revealed that she stuffs the porchetta at Café Rouge with quince and various aromatics. One of the other attendees asked what I’m sure we were all thinking: “Where’s Café Rouge exactly?!”
Following a lunch break upstairs at the Cannery Row Brewing Company, we reconvened to watch Rinn segment a grass-fed lamb from Doniga and Erik Markegard of Markegard Family Grass-Fed in San Gregorio. Rinn demonstrated techniques for frenching the rack of ribs, creating English-cut lamb chops, and deboning the leg two different ways—first by butterflying it and, second, by tunneling the bone out.
Rinn’s partner, Jenine Alexander, coached us through a double-layer freezer wrap and a cone wrap. The former would be sufficient to keep meat fresh for at least a year in the freezer, if not longer. We all had the chance to give our wrapping techniques a try.
The final cutting demonstration of the day involved a trio of chickens that were also provided by Early Bird Ranch. Rinn depanned, shoving his knives back into the case strapped to his hip, “Just sell your chickens whole.” Still he chopped one of the birds using the four-piece cut and another using the eight piece cut.
To conclude the educational portion of the seminar we heard from Andrew Gunther, of the Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) program, and Marilyn Noble, of the American Grassfed Association (AGA). Both organizations are focused on consumers’ growing interest in how farm animals are raised and their desire to know from where their food is coming and how it is produced. AWA certifies and promotes family farms that raise animals according to the highest welfare standards. AGA is advocating for stricter USDA guidelines on grassfed marketing claims which currently allow producers to claim “grassfed” when animals have only been “grass-finished.” The AGA, in stark contrast to the USDA, defines grassfed as ruminants—including cattle, bison, goats and sheep—who have eaten nothing but their mother’s milk and fresh grass or grass-type hay during their lifetimes.
When I was recounting the seminar to a friend, she asked if seeing the process of butchering animals—severing heads and sawing limbs—made me want to become a vegetarian. On the contrary, what I saw and the discussions I had were illuminating and inspiring.
Jeremiah Stent and Bill Milliot, both of TomKat Ranch and LeftCoast Grassfed, described how they were developing a working ecosystem by balancing the relationship between the grass and the grazers. They rotate their livestock—a complementary mix of grazing animals—through a series of paddocks to allow the grasses to recharge. For example, they follow the cattle with chickens that scratch through the cow patties, eating the larvae and naturally controlling fly populations. Pastured pigs are also part of their multi-species grazing plan because pigs have different grazing patterns than cows. The idea: a mix of dietary preferences and grazing behaviors results in greater plant utilization, a better ecological balance among plant species and increased production from a single piece of land.
Another ardent land steward, Mike Irving of Fifth Crow Farm in Pescadero, strives to produce nutritious food while maintaining the health of the soil and surrounding ecosystem. His farm yields a dizzying array of crops, including Hopi blue corn that they sell as a corncake/cornbread mix; heirloom dry beans that are still-life worthy with their vibrant shades and patterns; twenty-four varieties of apples; brassicas, alliums, bunching greens, salad greens, root crops, and more. On the livestock front, Mike raised two pigs for his own use last year and was curious about butchering pigs in-house in the future.
With our heads crammed full of carcass diagrams, different meat cuts, and recipe suggestions, we were ready to enjoy some of the meat from the day, crafted into seasonal dishes by Chef Jesse and Chef Carlos.
While we continued to mingle, we noshed on tender cubes of lamb in a verdant pool of pesto. The meat was incredible—probably because it was cut from a carcass only a few hours prior and due to expert preparation by the chefs. Still I was motivated to purchase some of the lamb that was offered to us at better than market rates to try my hand at some lamb dishes.
As we settled down to dinner, the chefs addressed the group. Having been dedicated to sustainable agriculture and cuisine for nearly four decades, Chef Jesse is a fervent advocate for local, sustainable, and organic food production. She raised a glass in appreciation to those to whom she referred as her heroes, the farmers, the first real environmental pioneers.
Chef Carlos described our dinner as a pork grab bag; not everyone would be served the same dishes. Exchanging glances with my tablemates, we made a tacit pact to share so that we could taste all of the culinary masterpieces.
To end our day at the first ever EcoFarm Butchery Skills Seminar, we dined on delicious pieces of pig—pork chops and pork belly—that Master Butcher Rian Rinn had cut earlier in the day. Chefs Jesse Cool and Carlos Canada topped the pork with a peach mustard and plated it with heaps of winter vegetables. Roasted turnips and carrots, sautéed Brussels sprouts, and a creamy potato gratin rounded out our feast. From carcasses to culinary masterpieces, it was quite a day!
Photos by Camilla Mann.