The New, Old-Fashioned Butcher
Trying to utter the words meat and sustainable in the same sentence undoubtedly gives us pause. We know that 99% of the meat consumed in this country is raised on CAFOs (Contained Animal Feeding Operations) that pump the animals full of antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals so they can stay just healthy enough to be legally slaughtered and sent to market. In the case of steer fed a diet of cheap, genetically modified corn, these poor quadrupeds have been stripped of what should be an inalienable right of all ruminants – access to pasture where they can chew some cud.
Raising cattle wasn’t always like this. In the pre-CAFO days farmers grazed cattle on their farmland, herding them from field to field where they enjoyed a wide variety of native grasses during the warmer months and setting aside hay and silage to feed them in the colder ones. Thankfully not all farms were converted to CAFOs or closed down. It’s these small, sustainably managed family-owned farms that are providing some of the most humane and prized meat available in the marketplace. Connecticut residents are able to purchase this type of meat frozen and cryovaced directly from local farmers or through certain intermediaries, but rarely fresh at a retail butcher’s counter. A gaping hole exists in the retail marketplace for local-sustainable meat and that’s about to change.
Fleischer’s Grass-Fed and Organic Meats in Kingston, NY has been running an extremely successful and high profile whole animal butcher shop and school since 2004. You may have caught Fleischer’s co-owner and master butcher Joshua Applestone on The Martha Stewart Show coaching her through the butchering of a side of pig while discussing the virtues of local and pasture raised meats. Joshua and Jessica Applestone’s new book, The Butcher’s Guide to Well-Raised Meat: How to Buy, Cut, and Cook Great Beef, Lamb, Pork, Poultry, and More, will be released in June and has already been called an “instant classic” by Marion Nestle. It’s a butcher’s guide appropriate for any food lover and cook.
Graduates of Fleischer’s whole animal butchery school are blazing a trail from New York City (Tom Mylan at The Meat Hook, also featured in the new Williams-Sonoma book The Cook and the Butcher) to Los Angeles (Amelia Posada and Erika Nakamura of Lindy & Grundy’s) setting up retail shops that appeal to consumers in search of the most delectable and sustainable fresh beef, lamb, pork and poultry available. Fairfield County will receive such a treat when Ryan Fibiger opens his full-service, whole animal butcher shop late this summer. Fibiger traded in a career in high finance for an entrepreneur’s life where he will replicate Fleischer’s successful whole animal butcher shop model. Initially, Fibiger will source from New York farms that currently supply Fleischer’s (all within 100 mile radius of Westport), but his goal is to also source from the best of breed Connecticut farms. While a whole animal butcher shop will appeal to any discriminating consumer, it’s the health-minded and sustainable eaters that are most apt to rejoice and throw a party to celebrate their newfound access to a convenient source for real meat with a backstory. I know I’ll be one of them.
According to Fibiger, the Fleischer’s philosophy starts with the butcher knowing the farms that raised the animals, how they were raised, and how and by whom they were slaughtered. “We hold our farms and slaughterhouses to extremely high standards of quality, transparency and humane practices.” The butcher takes over from there with an unconditional commitment to expert butchery and to using the entire animal from snout to tail. Really. That means cuts not fated for the retail case are rendered for fat or used to make stock, and any trimmings are made into dog food. This also implies the return of the traditional butcher as educator, helping to inform the consumer about lesser known cuts and ways to prepare them.
Local farm-to-table chefs whose sophisticated clientele already support their dedication to seasonal and nose to tail cooking (think cheeks, tongue, and sweetbreads) are important wholesale customers for whole animal butchers. (I’m willing to wager that a pig’s head torchon will soon arrive on one of these menus.) Fibiger plans to follow the Fleischer’s model of training chefs and sous chefs to break down whole animals themselves (subprimals in the case of steer) and anticipates a strong reception over time. “There are unlimited options as a chef when you break the animal down yourself, as well as insight into the quality of the meat (and life of the animal) that can only be inferred from working with the whole animal” he explains. If all goes as planned, an A-list farm-to-table chef will set up a new restaurant a few doors down from the butcher shop and pre-opening events will including pig roasts in the outdoor plaza and café.
As exciting as this new store is, whole animal butchery will require some adjustments on the part of the consumer. Think of it as an opportunity to become informed and enlightened about cuts of meat you’ve likely never seen and how to prepare them in a delicious manner for family and friends. This is so critical to a sustainable butcher shop’s success that it’s a formal part of the business model. Expect video podcasts, live demonstrations and workshops, and a store staff that’s 100% Fleischer’s trained and ready to answer your every question, patiently and professionally. One lesson for customers will be that the meat carries no USDA grading. “Pastured-raised meat is not generally graded” explains Fibiger, referring to the USDA grades frequently applied to factory farm-raised steer (e.g. prime, choice, select, etc.), “However, the flavor of our meat compares favorably against even the best prime-graded cuts”. Also prepare for the most popular cuts to disappear quickly each week since there are a finite number of steaks and chops in each animal. As Fibiger is quick to point out due to the rising popularity on restaurant menus, in the case of hangar steak, there is only ONE. To ensure availability, it’s advisable to call ahead and place a custom order. They deliver.
Fibiger is also planning a whole animal CSA (fully broken down) and will begin taking orders in June. A butchering demonstration open to the public is planned for late May or early June and you can find both events posted on this site once details become available.
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