Becoming a French Butcher's Apprentice

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This article first appeared at www.hypervocal.com/samsgoodmeats. Follow Sam on Twitter @SamsGoodMeats.

The Butcher from Gascony smiled broadly. “BONJOUR!” said Dominique Chapolard, as he smashed my outstretched hand like a piece of tissue paper. Another reminder that fist bumps are better than handshakes when it comes to people who cut meat for a living.

Thus began my French Pig education, another stop on the road to… well… nowhere other than satisfaction of my passion for meat: husbandry, processing, butchery, artisanal production, farm-to-table restaurant sourcing and cooking. As I would learn after two days, there are few experiences outside of the French Pig workshop where the links in this chain are so elegantly and masterfully illuminated.

So there I found myself, acting as personal chauffeur to Dom and his partner in crime, Kate Hill of the Kitchen-at-Camont cooking school in Gascony, who is the French Butcher’s chaperone and co-teacher during yearly workshop tours in the U.S. We exchanged pleasantries and jumped in my car for a trip to Baltimore’s Woodberry Kitchen, one of the best farm-to-table restaurants in the mid-Atlantic, where the workshop was being held.

The ride up I-95 was nearly worth the steep price of French Pig admission itself. While Dom stared out the window in blissful ignorance of our ramblings, I peppered Kate with questions about Gascony, which she calls the “mythical heart of France’s gastronomy” and “France’s kitchen,” as well as home for nearly 25 years.

Don’t think Parisian haute cuisine or white table cloths, though, if you’re planning to daydream about this southwest corner of France. Think rustic country food, prepared with ingredients farmed or produced by your neighbors, based on age-old cultural traditions. When Kate talks about it, you hear confit, cassoulet, Roquefort, Armagnac, and charcuterie in its varied glory.  And you immediately feel as though you’re enjoying a comfy meal in her Gascon kitchen, warmed by a big hearth fire and more than a little local wine.

Then you wake up from your daydream because your saintly fiancé is urging you to drive with greater resolve through the worst neighborhoods of West Baltimore. You hear her briefly, take stock of the burned out houses, and push the pedal to the floor a bit harder, before immediately being drawn back into Kate’s retelling of Dom’s story.

Monsieur Chapolard comes from generations of farmer-butchers. Twenty years ago, his father reorganized the family farm — Ferme Baradieu —to focus on pig husbandry. On 65 acres, Dom, his brothers, and their others grow wheat, barley, oats, corn, fava beans, soy, and flowers for seed to feed their herd of Yorkshire/Duroc/Pietrene cross breed hogs. The animals are raised to 12 months and approximately 400 lbs, larger and longer than is common in the U.S. The Chapolards bring 10 pigs a week to a processing facility (abattoir) 15 minutes from the farm. Nothing is wasted as the pigs are butchered and made into various fresh cuts and cured products that are sold directly to consumers — and only consumers — at markets in four French towns, none of which have more than 10,000 inhabitants. A 500 pig per year operation that is sustained by little old French ladies.

No outside influences are allowed on the farm, and the hogs are processed apart from other animals by the abattoir, which the Chapolards part own with a group of producers in the area. The family controls all elements of the process, which is the foundation for the high quality products they produce for customers that Dom knows intimately.  The system – a closed circuit that is direct-to-consumer focused – would seem impossible in the U.S., because we have few if any permanent farmers’ market structures, a dwindling number of local abattoirs, and a consumer base that is only beginning to demand responsibly-husbanded, local meat.

With that background in mind, we rolled into Woodberry Kitchen, where owner Gjerde, a visionary in the local food movement in the mid-Atlantic, welcomed us into the prep kitchen we’d be using for the workshop. We suited up and were nearly ready to go when Dom, somewhat urgently, asked me if he could run back to the car to get his black beret. I offered to loan him mine, but he refused.

I crowded into the small kitchen space with Gjerde’s staff, including his chef de cuisine/butcher, his charcuterie guy, and a rotating assembly of other cooks, as well as a local abattoir owner, a local sustainable farmer, a local wine advocate, and a fellow blogger-adventurer (@OneVanillaBean). We were given a quick tour of the curing room and the walk-in, where our pigs (Tamworth crosses) hung from hooks, their clean skin pocked with USDA tattoos. We waited breathlessly for Dom to give us a sign. He grunted with approval, and we all rejoiced inwardly.

Future column space will be used for my “how the French butcher a pig” piece, but it is worth recounting here some of the highlights. Dom hoisted 100+lb pig halves around like they were, again, tissue paper. He ran his hands over the flesh of the animal as though he were trying to smooth out a comforter. By five minutes into the cutting session, he was cradling the pig’s brain in his hands like a delicate flower. He methodically broke down the carcass into primal cuts, explaining each step like only a former agricultural trades teacher could, with only a simple, four inch blade. He taught us to stand so that our backs were not bearing the brunt of the workload. He betrayed his professorial demeanor only once, when he saw that I’d ruined a perfectly good pork shoulder roast with an errant cut. “My hhhroast?!” he cried, as I wilted nearly into dust. At the end of the day, he sharpened only the tip of his knife. I’ve been in butchery settings where meat saws were the first choice of tool.

Dom and Kate patiently taught us to make rustic culinary delights with all parts of the pig. Like pate fricandeaux, a mixture of pork shoulder mixed with, per kilo, 10% each of chicken liver/onion/boiled potato, 14g salt, and 2g pepper. As with all of the other French Pig recipes, this one called for no additional seasoning. The ingenious potato binder, which I’d never seen before in a pate, was used because it lasts longer in a buyer’s fridge than one bound with cream. Although we turned them into moon rocks in an overheated convection oven, they were still absolutely delicious on the inside. We also learned noix de jambon, Dom’s most popular product, which are small ham steaks cured in flaky sea salt for one day and then rolled in fresh cracked pepper, cold smoked, tied tightly, and hung to air dry for three weeks. I’ll report back on how mine turn out.

The breaks we took were almost as enjoyable as the workshop itself. During dinner the first night, I was inspired just listening to Will Morrow of Whitmore Farm and Dottie Bistransin of Boordy Vineyards talk about their passion for their work and the farm to table movement. Evan Arndt, the young butcher who is carrying on his family’s traditions at the Stony Point Farm Market and abattoir in Pennsylvania, talked at length about how he has helped move the business towards more sustainable practices and products.

George Marsh, chef de cuisine at Woodberry Kitchen, and his colleagues let us in on how they deal with whole animals from local farms at the restaurant on a weekly basis. I later got to watch Marsh brine a huge tub of pig heads and tongues, which about now are probably being boiled and ground for head cheese. Farmers and local artisans, like Denzel Mitchell of 5 Seeds Farm in urban Baltimore, buzzed in and out of the restaurant constantly, chatting all the while. This was real, local food culture, and I let it wash over me.

Then Dom opened up through Kate, and sappy as it may sound, my outlook was permanently changed. He’d spent a day already taking us through the French Pig process, and now it was time for the philosophy. He doesn’t really use the word sustainability or local sourcing, because these things go without saying in his life. The quality of his product – its porky essence – and the trust of his customers are what drives him as a producer and businessperson. How else can you get a little old lady who knows exactly what she to come back time and time again? His unique model means he is heavily scrutinized by regulators, and any deviation in terms of quality or process hurts him and all the others in his chain. There just isn’t room for error. “My hhhroast!”

But there is another level to the French Pig altogether, and it lit a fire under me when I heard Kate translate Dom’s passionate voice. The Chapolards are deeply involved in French politics from their farm to the tables of power in Paris. Their number one priority is to protect the viability of their local abattoir against pressure from the French government to consolidate meat processing in a national center. Dom has met with the French Minister of Agriculture to talk about his tiny Gascon farm and push the message that if the local abattoir is lost, his business model is doomed and so too is the entire market culture in Gascony.

I walked away from the workshop confident that I can break down a pig, albeit slowy, and make some delicious and rustic French dishes. I have some beautiful cuts at home, including shoulder roasts, a huge piece of jowl for guanciale, and two pieces of noix de jambon hanging in my kitchen. But the political message was the one that resonated most with me. Local farmers and artisans in the U.S., some of whom have already been connected to each other across Brady Lowe’s new Cochon 555 network, have a huge opportunity to come together, get some support from foundations or other entities, better educate customers, and mobilize them to drive changes that will help the local food movement grow even more dynamically. If we all feel on the cusp, then this is the way to get over to the other side.

With Kate offering a translation, Dom put it this way: “Remember that the movement is very slow, but very deep. The most important power in the movement is the consumer, who will push the direction. Every chance farmers and artisans have, they must tell people what it all means and what needs to happen. And they must look for new ways of reaching people and building community. In France over the last 15 years, we’ve seen growth of night markets, for example, where the wine guy brings a keg of cold rose, the oysterman shucks fresh oysters, the charcuterie maker cuts meat, the breadmaker offers fresh baguette, and people build trust in their local producers and community.”

Sounds like the best party I can imagine, and I’m hoping by the next time Kate and Dom come to the U.S., we’ll have made steps along the French Pig path they so beautifully laid out. Doing so is up to us.