The Butcher, The Baker (The Candlestick Maker?)

Knife

Last month before my birthday, the Everyman admitted that he was at a loss for gift ideas for me.

Since I’m the type of person who will generally buy anything I need for myself as I happen to need it, at first I couldn’t think of anything to tell him.  Aside from that, I hate suggesting to people what to give me, because a) it ruins any semblance of surprise and b) if you want to buy me a present, you should know me well enough to pick something out on your own, otherwise you shouldn’t be giving me a present in the first place.

But, as the date continued to approach he didn’t seem any closer to coming up with an appropriate gift, so I threw out a couple of thoughts, one of which was to attend a butchery session at Cowbell.  I did want to go, but I wasn’t really expecting him to take me up on it because it would mean there wouldn’t be anything for me to open (which is what I find most fun about presents to begin with), but shockingly, he did.  He even opted to leave the gift open ended, so I could choose the butchery session that most appealed to me because they offer classes in just about every kind of animal the restaurant uses on a rotating basis.

For those who aren’t in the know, Cowbell is one of Toronto’s premiere local food bistros, who not only preach nose to tail, but practice it as well by buying whole animals and employing an in-house butcher to break them down in the restaurant’s basement.  Since they bring in a whole animal nearly every week, approximately once a month they offer a class where you can follow along as butcher Ryan does his thing.  There was a class being held on my birthday to break down a red deer (one I would have loved to attend) but we didn’t find out until it was too late (while we were there the day of for my birthday brunch).  Several weeks later we visited with the Everyman’s brother and wife for dinner, and when we enquired we were told that the next session was going to be a Tamworth pig.  It sounded interesting (and we love pork), so the Everyman signed the 2 of us up.

Fast forward to this past Sunday, when we (and the other participants) assembled in the dining room at 7:30, while the restaurant was offering Sunday roast dinner.  After being introduced to Ryan, we were led on a tour of the restaurant, making a quick stop at the kitchen to meet that nights’ staff, though unfortunately chef Mark was not in attendance.  After the brief hello, we descended to the basement to get started.

In the centre of the room was a giant butcher block table with half a pig splayed out across it in all of its glory.   There wasn’t anything particularly gory about the scene but I opted not to take any photos because I hate being “that guy,” figuratively speaking.  It was always one of the things I despised doing the most when I was writing for Taste T.O. because taking photos in the middle of a crowded setting (specifically a restaurant) makes me feel like a tool, not to mention I’m not confident enough in my photography skills to expect that I’ll have gotten it right after one or two shots anyway.  As such, there will be no graphic photos of the event, but if you want to see an account of a class, Well Preserved ran a relatively comprehensive one recently of a class they attended.

When it came down to brass tacks the session was extremely engaging and super informative.  Though standing in place for over 2 hours can occasionally be taxing on the feet (and I even wore flats!) it was well worth the mild discomfort.  Ryan spoke slowly and confidently, explaining each of the various sections on the pig and what cuts of meat came from them, as well as giving a bit of background into the lifestyle of that particular pig and the farm it came from.  Piece by piece he and his assistant broke the side down, and at the end they put all of the primal cuts back onto the table to illustrate how to “put Humpty Dumpty back together again”.  Clearly the guy has a sense of humour…

What amazed me most about the session was threefold.  Firstly, I was astounded by how much of the butchery Ryan was doing with just his bare hands and gravity.  Contrary to popular belief, good butchers don’t need to forcefully hack things to bits to get the job done.  There’s no doubt he was probably aware of us onlookers and thus more calculated in his approach, but it was clear that there was a high degree of artistry and skill in the movements he was making.  With little more than patience and a light hand he managed to flay most of the beast by gently feathering the muscle groups with the tip of a relatively small knife.  Once he had worked an incision open, he used the strength in his hands to open it up further, separating the flesh piece by piece, something that was truly mesmerizing to watch.

Secondly, I was flabbergasted by how antiseptic and bloodless the whole process happened to be, though it’s possible that was intentional to avoid squeamishness from the audience.  Certainly there were a few small blood spots and bruises evident, but there wasn’t anything disgusting or offensive about the butchering like I would have expected.  If anything, I found it strangely beautiful, especially that the pig still had its eyelashes intact, for some reason.  I know it might seem odd, but there was something about the fact that they were still there that made me feel like it must’ve been at peace.  Silly perhaps, but a prosaic thought to hold on to nonetheless.

Lastly, the thrift and care that was taken to ensure that nothing went to waste was nothing short of astonishing.  Of a 104 pound half pig that we watched Ryan butcher (the other half of which he’d already butchered earlier that week), his final waste bowl only contained 0.9 pounds of scrap at the end.  There was some contention about this number because truthfully it was around 1.5-1.6 pounds due to a dried out kidney that he opted not to use, but had it not been air dried he would have used it for something, hence the question of the deduction.  Either way, his total percentage waste hovered around the 1% mark, which by and large is quite the feat.  Bones would be used for stock, meats would be cooked sous vide for service, fat and trim would get ground down for charcuterie and even the skin would be extended into cotecchino.  For those who might object to meat eating I’m sure this offers but a tepid reassurance, but at least there is an absolutely minimal amount of the animal going unused.

At the end of the class, Ryan showed us around their curing cellar and walk in cooler, and I think I found myself endeared by him all the more when he revealed that he is also the baker (kindred spirits, us bakers).  Not only that, but he had several bread starters in their walk in, one of which was named Olga after his mother in law (charming!) which made me giggle because a long time ago I named mine boring, old Frankenstein!  The group then ascended the stairs and returned to the dining room, where we all gathered around the bar and had drinks with Ryan, while chowing down on platters of delicious housemade charcuterie.  At that point several of the other attendees engaged him in lengthy discussions on food and cooking (one of whom was opening his own butcher shop in Ottawa) so once we finished up, we slipped out into the dark, cool evening to make our way home.

Overall I would rate the evening as a truly worthwhile experience, one that I may sign up for again just for the chance of seeing a different type of animal.  Who knows, maybe next time he’ll reveal that he IS the candlestick maker, too!  Though, if you know your history you’re aware of the fact that candles used to be made of beef tallow, thus the butcher really could be the candlestick maker (/nerdalert).

Until next time…

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2 Responses to “The Butcher, The Baker (The Candlestick Maker?)”

  1. larbo says:

    Sounds like a truly worthwhile class!

    Saving the drinks and charcuterie for afterwards, sounds like a much better idea than combining cocktails with the butchery, à la Ryan Farr. In this way, the meal becomes a sociable occasion, giving everyone a chance to process their experience, ask further questions, find out what other people in the class plan to do with their new knowledge…

    Now Everyman knows what to get you for your next birthday: a butcher block large enough to hold an entire side of meat!

  2. mochapj says:

    Funny you should mention it, Larbo.

    I was out looking for a butcher block island the day before the class :)

    It was an amazing experience, though. Even though we’ve been buying half and quarter animals for years, it was neat to see how it all happens before everything gets portioned up.

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