Fortunately, not far away, is a table set with delicious rillettes, sausage, pate and salumi (also dead pig.) And wine. Fortification for what the four of us are about to do: Break down this pig carcass into edible portions of chops, hams, bacon, tenderloin, cheeks and grind meat. Philip Grubisa, owner and main butcher at Beltex Meats, is leading the class. Grubisa worked with Chef Mark Sullivan at Spruce, was Executive Chef at The Farm, worked with Briar Handley at Talisker on Main and staged at The Fatted Calf.
He starts by sawing off the head, then cuts out the cheeks, one of the most prized cuts on a hog.
“But there are only two per hog,” he reminds us. Customers come in wanting, say, eight cheeks to serve at a dinner party. That means something has to be done with the 1,000 pounds of pig left over from the eight cheeks. “We put the cheeks aside until we have enough to sell,” says Grubisa.
Meanwhile, he sells the rest of the pig—his butcher shop is committed to selling the whole animal. He gets in four hogs a month from Christiansen’s Family Farm and one or two cows a month from Pleasant Creek Ranch. In spring, he gets local, sustainably raised lamb. And unlike conventional grocery store butchers, which concentrate on the popular cuts—loin, mostly chops and steaks—he sells virtually all of every animal. By the time we have finished cutting up the front of our pig American-style, and the back of the pig, European style, there is only a handful of scraps, mostly glands, left over.
The students in this Monday night class are chefs and amateurs serious about their food. For those of us (all of us) accustomed to buying pre-cut meat in plastic wrappings, it’s enlightening to understand just where those chops, steaks, ribs and loins fit into a real animal’s anatomy. At first we watch as Grubisa wields his knife, saw and fingers. Then we each get a turn with the tools.
“You want to hear the knife against the bone,” says Grubisa, as he shows us how to cut along the chine. “That way, you know your yield is going to be high.”
He peels the fat apart from the muscle with his hands, probing with his fingers and finding the natural break. Again, using your hands ensures a good yield—less meat is wasted. There are added benefits: “A butcher’s hands are soft,” he says. “You’re rubbing them in fat all day.”
You can see the different kinds of fat and the distinct textures, the soft leaf fat usually rendered for lard and the stiffer back fat cured to make lardo, the luxurious “pig butter” beloved by the Italians.
Grubisa cuts off the thick skin. Before the pig is butchered, it’s blanched in boiling water to get the bristles off, with mixed results. “If it’s nice and white, we make it into cracklings,” says Grubisa. “If it still has some little bristles, we make it into dog treats. The dogs never complain about a little hair.”
You don’t have to cut up your own pig to enjoy Beltex’s handcut meats. You can sign up for a “meat share,” like a CSA share: Ten pounds of meat, various cuts, all from animals as local and ethically raised as possible. Or just drop in the small shop. Try the bacon.
Go to beltexmeats.com for more information about Beltex, which, by the way, is named after a hybrid sheep, a cross between a Belgian and a Texel, mainly raised in Britain. It’s known for its heavy hindquarters.