Tuesday, August 17, 2010

American Meat Cutters and Mangalitsa; "Artisan" Butchers

Cured Mangalitsa Shoulder - made in USA.

I was talking with Rufus Brown today about his hams and shoulders.

Rufus said one worker turning hams into ham slices wasn't careful enough. He cut away too much fat, instead of just cutting away the outer skin.

Mangalitsa Ham from Europe

Look at that ham. If you start cutting away the fat, there won't be much left.

Rufus pointed out that the fat on these hams tastes incredible. It is as good or better than the meat. Given what it takes to make fat that good, I hate to have it go to waste.

Rufus mentioned that he had to keep telling the worker to be careful with the fat, and to slow down. On their regular hogs, there's not much fat, and it is viewed as waste. The goal is to get it off the ham, especially on certain products like spiral sliced hams.

In contrast, the fat on Mangalitsa hams is valuable. That's unlike anything else they make. Rufus's experience reminded me of my problems getting fatback harvested properly.

The continual battle that Mangalitsa producers face is that nobody - the meat cutter, processor, retailer or even the final customer treats the Mangalitsa fat with enough respect.

E.g. you tell a meat processor you want slabs of fat taken off the hog, as shown here. Instead, what you get is a bag of nearly worthless fat scraps. You explain what you want again, and repeat the whole process, including the disappointment.

This has happened to me several times with 3 different processors now, and at least twice to a Texas producer.

The processor simply can't understand the instructions, because they aren't like any instructions they've heard before. You have to show them how to do it right.

My solution to the processing problem was to have European experts - at tremendous expense - train an award-winning American processor to cut pigs the best way possible.

As a result, Swiss Meat and Sausage is able to do seam butchery techniques, producing cuts like what you'd get in Austria and Spain. They are, to my knowledge, the only USDA-inspected slaughter and processing facility doing this. Nobody else can get you a bunch of paletas like the one shown above.*

Of course, if you can't produce that raw cut, you can't produce the cured product shown up at top. That's too bad - because those are really valuable, while picnic shoulders are typically only fit for grinding. You probably don't know what one looks like because so few want to buy them.

I really didn't understand anything about this until last January, when I learned about cutting up pigs. Now I'm sorry I ever got pigs cut any other way.

Given how little attention I've given the topic, and given the huge differences in cutout value, unless someone can produce a paleta, I figure they haven't given the topic of pig cutting much attention. These part-time butchers cut up pigs better than most rockstar butchers you've heard of.

If someone considers himself a butcher (better yet, an "artisan" butcher), but can't make a paleta (or something more valuable), I'm going to guess the guy is ignorant and probably lazy.

If this sounds harsh, look at it this way: the job of a pig butcher is to make money cutting up pigs. If he produces a paleta, one can cure it, roast it or grind it. A paleta looks a lot better as a roast than a picnic, so it sells for more. If he produces a picnic, he's lucky if he can sell it as a roast. It is almost certainly headed to the grinder, which ruins the bottom line, making him less of a butcher.

This is obvious stuff; I learned it quickly enough. My education and experience did not include anything related to pigs or butchery. I didn't know anything about this topic a few years ago.

Of course, I had the benefit of learning from a guy who is really good - and generous enough to teach others. But that doesn't excuse everybody else - especially the people putting themselves out there as expert pig-cutters.

Here's my tip for novices who want to evaluate a butcher, to see how good he is:
  • see how much trim he produces
  • see how much meat he leaves on the bones
Those are things you can observe. They tell you a lot about the skill of the butcher. E.g. watch this guy. Then watch this guy. Who makes more trim? Who leaves more meat on the bone?

One final thing: reflecting on the topic of who is America's best "artisan" butcher, there's an interesting situation. Heath Putnam Farms produces the best pigs, but it doesn't process them. Swiss Meat cuts our pigs up into parts. The people who process the pigs are in North Carolina, or spread across the USA's most esteemed kitchens (thanks to Foods in Season). There really isn't a single butcher in that system. There's no one person you can point to. E.g. Rufus and his team at Johnston County Hams produce the best hams - but they aren't butchers in the sense of turning whole pigs into things.

Given what makes hams and other cured products taste good, it is entirely possible that America's best "artisan" butcher - the guy best at taking entire pigs and turning them into products - cannot produce a ham as good as the ones that Rufus makes. The quality of the raw material is too important.

* Mosefund has sent its pigs from New Jersey to Swiss, Missouri to get them processed - because there was no better option in between.

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