Each weekend, we load our truck with free-range meat and eggs and head over the Blue Ridge mountain into farmers market in Washington DC. Everyone knows that farming is a full-time commitment, and as each year recedes into memory, I sometimes wonder how we manage to get it all done.
The truth is, we couldn’t get it done without the help of our two outstanding local butcher shops. Small scale butchers play an indispensable role for local farmers; without them, getting free-range meat into stores, restaurants and markets would be nearly impossible.
But now more than ever, small-scale family-owned butcher shops are an endangered species. If we truly want to “eat local,” then these shops must remain open and prosperous. As Jedediah Purdy suggests in this recent OpEd in the New York Times, it’s time to make slaughterhouse operations transparent. I agree. Come along as I take you behind the scenes at Blue Ridge Meats, a small USDA inspected butcher shop in Front Royal, Virginia.
***Spoiler alert: Farming celebrates the circle of life, and death is a part of this cycle. If you are sensitive to images of traditional butchering practices, then this might not be your blog. However, if you are genuinely interested in knowing how small farms and local butcher shops interact, then in the name of transparency and integrity, please read on. Knowledge is power.***
Of course, it all starts on our farm, Smith Meadows. We select three or four grass-finished cattle every Wednesday morning, and personally haul them to the butcher shop on our trailer.
About 40 minutes later we’re at the butcher shop, backed up and ready to unload.
Unlike most slaughterhouses, our animals are quickly dispatched without hours of waiting. After humanely killing a steer with a point-blank shot to the head, it is quickly skinned by a skillful butcher.
Two carcasses ready to dry age. “Dry aging” is an old fashioned technique whereby beef is hung for several weeks in a frigid (but not freezing) room. Cold air circulates around the carcass as it ‘ages,’ imparting tenderness and flavor to the meat. This is an increasingly rare technique in modern times, and nearly all beef in the United States is ‘wet aged’ instead. ‘Wet aging’ means placing beef into plastic sacks, and letting it ferment in its own juices. Clearly, we prefer dry aging! (As a side note, the yellow fat on these animals is giveaway that they were grass-fed. Corn fed animals have snow-white fat).
After weeks of dry aging, a beef is ready to be ‘broken down.’ Here, a butcher slices apart an entire side of beef in a few moments as I watch.
Have you ever seen a circular shaped bone in a sirloin steak or leg of lamb? That’s a result of the bone saw, seen here slicing the beef into slabs while cutting straight through the bone.
Three part harmony.
Inside the chill room, with beef dry aging in the background. If you look closely, you will notice that these pigs have been prepared in different ways, some with their heads left on, other removed, and the one in the foreground with the head removed but saved. Different customers have different preferences when it comes to pig roasts, and small scale butcher shops are able to cater to individual needs.
The Valley Proteins truck, hauling away offal to a rendering plant.
Operating a small butcher shop is extraordinarily expensive. Besides the normal types of overhead (payroll, utilities, mortgage, etc.), a butcher shop files significant amounts of regulatory paperwork each week. With appointments scheduled months in advance, a missed butchering appointment means a serious loss of revenue for a small shop. Hence, this notice!
The end result: delicious sausages, chops and roasts. As you’ve seen by now, the working conditions are clean, the process is transparent, and the artistry is unparalleled. Quality is maintained when only small numbers of animals pass through the doors each week. Conditions like these are harder to find in the mega-slaughterhouses, where thousands of animals per day are the norm.
Every butcher shop is unique, and Blue Ridge Meats is no exception. Here, owner Lois Aylestock smiles from her office through a hole in the ceiling, where she can see customers as they enter the deli. It’s eccentricities like these that make small butcher shops a vital thread running through our American tapestry.
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