A lesson in seam butchering

Meet Kate Hill (left) and the butcher, Dominique Chapolard (right)

I have made no secret for my love of pork. For me, it doesn’t deserve second billing to chicken as the other white meat, it is so much more than that(not that I have anything against chicken). But can I really blame people for that comparison, when supermarket meat cases carry these lean segments of pork loin stripped of all the fat? I guess I should be thankful for America’s love of pork ribs – I love them too and am thankful for the fat left in those – but not as much as I love the flavorful belly of the pig.

Though I’m mostly immune to some groups who are openly vocal about omnivores being some kind of animal killers, I am grateful to them for making me aware of food industry practices around the world.

The thing is, I grew up pretty much where food was farm-to-table.

My hometown province in the Philippines, Benguet, is known as the nation’s “salad bowl” because of its huge production of vegetables. The South China sea and its bounty of fresh fish is but an hour drive and we have a slaughter house right in the heart of the city rumored also to be serving up the fabled aphrodisiac soup #5. The native peasants, who raise ducks and chicken, regularly stop by our restaurant to sell their animals and my dad or grandma would expertly convert these fowls into delicious white-cut chicken, stewed, roast or dried duck.

Yup, I’ve seen my dad or grandma deftly slaughter poultry – slit, scald, de-feather & gut them before my very eyes. You can say I was de-sensitized at a very young age.

This had carried over several years into my living in the United States. I sort of accepted the meat in supermarkets without questioning its sources (I assumed the processing plant wasn’t too far) but I have also wondered about chicken being so tasteless. It’s only in the past six years after starting a food blog that I’ve seen through the food industries’ dirty little secrets and now store shelves are becoming less and less appealing to me.

It’s enough to turn me into a vegetarian…okay…maybe I exaggerate a bit (and I can hear my brothers laughing their heads off). After all, I’m the kid who picked the potato and carrots out of the lamb stew and threw them under the table so I can eat more lamb. Besides, didn’t vegetables get their fair share of bad press with e-coli and salmonella?

Nothing is safe, the price of industrialization is steep.

Big food plants need to be regulated, food handling has become so mechanized, I wouldn’t be surprised if we’ve bleached the flavor out of our food.

Which is why I want to rediscover my roots and, as cliche at that sounds, how things were done in the good old days.

One thing I have not admitted to in this blog was when I went home to the Philippines last year, I took part in the slaughtering of a duck – uhm….it didn’t turn out very well for me and the duck. Even there the old guard is gone. My mom is 82, walking on a cane (she broke her hip 6-months back) impatiently berating the cooks who didn’t know how to handle the poor fowl and I watched in horror as the poor thing struggled as I was traumatized by the scene. And yes, I could not eat the dish that was made from it.

The experience did not deter me from wanting to learn more about how meat was processed, it spurred me more into finding a place that would teach me about this art.

I’ve always wanted to save up enough money to take one of Kate Hill’s culinary programs like the Marché au gras which is a whole week of duck cookery heaven from confit de canard to foie gras.

I’ve also found Duckfest, a culinary program in Claddagh farms. The past workshop was in December which was not a good time for me to take off.

I was also curious about The French Pig. Kate has teamed up with the Chapolard family – a farmer/butcher family that makes sausage, ham and pâtés to introduce French butchery workshops in the United States.

This certainly saves me a plane ticket, though I wouldn’t mind traveling to Gascony.
The workshop was held in Little Washington at the Stonyman Gourmet Farmer this past Sunday. Oooh, if I had not just come back from my Philippine vacation I would have suggested to the hubby to make a weekend of it and dine at the Inn at Little Washington.

Stonyman Gourmet Farmer

We arrived at the Stonyman Gourmet Farmer a little before 9:00 am on a fine sunny morning. The shop was adorable and people were milling around morning coffee and pastries which were made fresh everyday. I had a delicious pear muffin for breakfast and I immediately could tell that these baked goods were in a class of their own.

I was thrilled to finally meet Kate Hill and Dominique Chapolard. Dom asked me if I was a butcher (or I was in the pig trade) and I said, “No, but I love pork so much.” I suddenly had an image of myself with a cleaver hacking through a big side of meat.

I also got to meet Cathy Barrow, also known as Mrs. Wheelbarrow, one of the founders of Charcutepaloozaa year of meat – a group dedicated to the art of charcuterie.

Dom Chapolard started talking about his love for the pig. He runs a full circle farm together with his wife and three brothers. They grow the grains they feed their pigs, slaughter in a cooperative abattoir ( a group of farmers share the cost), butcher the meat on their farm and produce fresh French pork cuts and delectable charcuterie for their town…and apparently they sell out every week.

I never knew that the French were this passionate about pork.

He also said that the farmer loves his pig and the butcher loves his meat. To show respect for this porcine creature, it is important not to waste anything. This starts from the slaughter. Blood is drained and kept for blood sausage. Whatever scraps are gleaned from cleaning the pig is accumulated in a pile to be made into saucisse later. I think when he said that when you terminate the life of a pig, it is not a “Disney feeling” I think he meant that our sadness when the hunter made Bambi motherless – we felt sad for a while and then we forgot about it after the movie ended. For the butcher, it is a weekly ritual of slaughtering the pig, it is a real feeling that has become part of their affinity with the animal which they have raised from birth and nurtured for a year.

Pigs grow very fast from months 1-6, so whatever you feed it becomes apparent in the weight they put on. In the United States, they are slaughtered at 6 months because feeding it longer than that will be very costly. However, the muscle of a pig at that age is mostly water. That’s why when you cook pork chops bought from American supermarkets, it releases a lot of water.

In France, they let the pig mature to a year because the muscle becomes more dense which translates to more flavor.

So after that intro, it’s best to let the pictures tell the story, no?

Dominique Chapolard

The butcher Chapolard has massive forearms. With the exception of sawing through the joints, he used a non-flexible short boning knife for all his seam butchering.The knife he has above is the Victorinox- 5.5603.14.

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leaf lard vs. regular pork fat

He let us feel the difference of the leaf lard which is near the internal organs and the regular fat that is the layer under the skin. The leaf lard is more dense and white and this is perfect for, what else, pie dough!

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He first took the front hoofs off at the joint.

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Then worked on the hind legs. If you were making ham, you would leave the hoofs on because you hang the ham by this.

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Then Dom worked on the back seam to coax out the tenderloin.

The rib seam

In the U.S., the ribs are a prized cut of the pig, in France these are used as soup bones so when seaming, they take the knife closer to the bone to leave more meat on the pork belly. So the ribcage is pulled away from the ventreche (pork belly) very carefully.

Kate tells us that you never hear the butcher say cutting or chopping, it is always “pull away” or to “free”.

Dom adds ” In France, we like to take things apart gently.”


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