New generation of neighborhood butchers revive long lost craft
Published 12:56 pm, Tuesday, February 21, 2012
Inside the brightly-lit storefront of Saugatuck Craft Butchery, Ryan Fibiger stood before an oversized carving table, gripped his bladed knife and made neat slices into a primal cut of lamb.
"I'm taking my meat consumption to the next level," Dreyfuss, of Westport, said. "They have a real passion for what they do here."
That passion is on display in every corner of the 920-square-foot market -- from the neatly-stacked shelves of hard-to-find cuts, to the boldly-lettered blackboards boasting pasture-raised stock, to the flannel-clad staff who do all their cutting, grinding and wrapping in full view of customers.
"Some people freak out when they see the animal right there in front of them," said Fibiger, motioning to the freshly-cut lamb laid out on the carving table. "But this is how meat is meant to be prepared."
Fibiger, who co-owns the market with his wife, Katherine, is part of a small, but growing movement of entrepreneurs who are reviving an old-fashioned craft.
Nationwide, newly-minted butchers are selling meat from small local farms that raise their animals humanely and sustainably, while offering a knowledgeable and intimate level of customer service that is luring in foodies like the scent of braised brisket.
"It's growing all over the country," Tom Schneller, associate professor of butchery at the Culinary Institute of America, said. "People want to know where their meat comes from and have a relationship with their butchers, just like the old days."
At Saugatuck Craft Butchery, that relationship resembles a student-teacher dynamic. Fibiger makes it a point to know and explain the who, what, when, where and how behind every product he sells. He also makes recommendations, which is helpful in navigating the dizzying array of exotic cuts.
Customers can choose from ranch steak, sirloin tip steak, eye-round roast, cross-cut beef shanks and butterfield leg of lamb -- items that, in most cases, are foreign to the average supermarket shopper. Dreyfuss, who had tried the shop's rib roast for Christmas dinner, wondered what to order this time around.
"How about lamb chops?" suggested Fibiger, who, like most butchers, also dishes out advice on how to prepare the meat (in this case, with a dry rub of rosemary, salt, thyme and black pepper). "It's going to be incredibly tender."
But as butchers are quick to point out, a quality meat invariably begins with a quality animal.
Tim Sanders, co-owner of Sanders Meat Market in Ballston Spa, N.Y., carries a "consistently high quality product," whether it's beef or bison, rabbit or quail. That means animals raised without hormones, steroids or antibiotics -- chemicals that take away from the true taste potential of the meat and can harm human health, Sanders said.
"There is a need in the industry for bigger, fatter, more," he explained. "Now, there's a lot more discussion about what is and isn't good for you. Real foodies are coming around to the idea of knowing where there food comes from."
Butchers prefer to get their animals from small local farms (Fibiger's lamb comes from Pine Plains, N.Y., a little less than two hours drive from Westport, while Sanders' veal comes from Ithaca, N.Y., a little more than three hours drive from Ballston Spa). This ensures the freshness of the meat, and reduces the butcher's carbon footprint.
Looking to get the most out of their meat, butchers follow a nose-to-tail philosophy, meaning that uses every part of the animal gets used. They do most, if not all, of their own cutting in house.
The practice is a cut above your typical chain supermarket, which buys "boxed meat, pre-cut, from big commercial farms," Schneller said. In fact, many butchers opened their businesses in reaction to what they describe as a lack of access to locally, humanely and sustainably-produced animals.
"What exists is an acceptable product and low service," Ford said. "We're focused on giving the best and widest variety of products."
Generally, that means the customer pays a little more. However, given the superior quality, selection and customer service at old-fashioned butchers, shelling out the extra dough is well worth it, buthcers said.
"That's why you go to a shop like ours," added Ford, whose speciality is sizziling pork belly cubes. "There's nothing we can't do."
At the same time, juggling customer demand with animal availability can be tough. Butchers can't just call their local farm and order an extra cow. So, when they're out of a certain stock, butchers take that opportunity to teach customers about new cuts.
Call it quality meat with a side of education.
"It's so rewarding to see people come in here and ask, `What is that?' " Fibiger said. "It's fun to see people open their eyes and find out that there's a world beyond steak."
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