I recently had the honour of being invited to a butchery demo in the basement of Cowbell (a very unique restaurant in Toronto). Our friend Margaret Mulligan (the fabulous photographer) was shooting the session and, along with Head Chef, Mark Cutrara, I was offered to come along. I always love the chance to explore something I haven’t seen or tried before – we only write about the experiences that we liked or loved. This was one to love. Today’s article is art 1 of 3 and is a serious comparison of a butcher, a chef and a vegetarian. All of the photos are hers. To see the entire series of posts, click here.
There are several photos below which include an active butchery session. Graphic as they may be for some, we have been careful to choose what we believe is a balance between sharing an important story of sustainable eating and the sensibilities of many. The most graphic photos are not part of what follows.
Ryan Donovan worked at the Healthy Butcher for years before joining Mark Cutrara at Cowbell. His is passionate about butchery and mastering a craft that is disappearing. There is a theme of sustaining at cowbell (butchery, preserving, charcuterie, baking) which is also contrasted by a the welcoming of newer techniques (Sous Vide plays a significant role in the kitchen as an example).
Ryan and Chef Mark Cutrara lead a group of 10 people through the butchery of a 100+ pound lamb. It’s early evening when a group of 10 people enter the basement prep kitchen and are greeted by the graphic reality of the task at hand. For some it’s the first time to see an animal in this state (it has arrived skinned and cleaned from the abattoir) and even after seeing hundreds of deer and moose in a similar state it is a raw site. The next 3-hours is an incredible sharing of information, explanation of philosophy and technique and education on sustainability.
“There are less and less butchers today – even in butcher shops.” Many restaurants order pre-butchered meat or roasts of which they cut into portions that they wish to serve. More and more butchers are ordering from the same suppliers and the art becomes further threatened. Between farming and butchering we are dreadfully risking losing the ability to actually feed ourselves independently.
The session starts when Ryan produces a scale. He places it on the table and rests a bowl on top of it. Since Cowbell buys the animal based on weight, the bones cost as much per pound as any “fine” cut of meat. There is absolute clarity that the use of the entire animal is not simply a financial decision – use of the entire animal is a vision that is tied to animal husbandry, their vision of sustainability and the beliefs they share with the farmer (Dingo Farms in Bradford in this case). The total waste of this animal was 1.31 pounds – less than 1%.
The education process continues as I hear the words “retail cuts” for the first time. The gentlemen mention that one of the advantages of self-butchery is not having to produce these things. I realize that they are referring to dissecting the animal differently than what I see on styrofoam and am pulled deeply into the conversation. The explanation of retail cuts is simply what you find in the grocery store. Rib-eye, sirloin and the like.
The team explains that individual muscles are always separated by layers of fat (much of the butchery can be done by hand without a knife). As each muscle performs a different function and is a different texture from the others, each requires different cooking methods to extract the most from the cuts. Many retail pieces include multiple muscle groups (look for layers of fat).
I remember studying first aid and being explained that many of our muscles work in groups of 2 and the muscles alternate flexing/relaxing in order to allow us to move. As you flex your bicep, your triceps becomes relaxed. The more a muscle is worked, the more flavor it can develop and the tougher it can become.
The use of the animal is fascinating. They render fat, make sausage, prepare stock and brine larger cuts. The animal will last several weeks to feed the restaurant and they will only bring another lamb in once this one is complete.
The workshop end over a beer and tastes of their charcuterie and preserves. The chef and butcher share stories, field questions and share their passion with the group. Details are offered on their site and are worth every penny.
Over the weekend we will be adding a more detailed gallery of the workshop – the photos are more graphic than shown here and we will share a link on the main page for those who wish to explore more.