When a post for a butchery course flashed across my Instagram feed earlier this year, I was intrigued. As it turns out, so were 23 other people in the Ottawa area, who booked spaces on two consecutive nights to learn to carve up a whole hog at boutique butcher Muckleston & Brockwell on Beechwood Avenue.
When the day arrived, I found myself in a room full of food lovers. There was Vincent, who grew up on a hobby farm but wanted to know more about cutting meat; Shirley came with her daughter, both intrigued by a new experience; Adam is a sous chef at El Camino on Elgin; Clara a doctor in family medicine who “loves to cook, loves to eat, and wants to know more about my food.” And then there was me; a food lover, a cook, a food writer, and a person who is always game for a new experience — but strangely apprehensive about this three-hour course.
It felt rebellious, this act. Plenty of my social media feeds focus on veganism. Every time I open a magazine or newspaper to the food section, there’s an article on vegetarian or vegan ways of eating and the topic increasingly pops up in the health sections too. And that’s to say nothing about the links between livestock farming and global warming. You’d be forgiven for believing that eating meat is quickly going out of fashion. By taking this workshop, I have the distinct (guilty) feeling that I’m moving against the zeitgeist.
However, as I stepped into the timeless space of old fashioned butcher Muckelston & Brockwell, complete with vintage styling, a bone broth bar, a large display case of locally sourced, ethically raised, hormone- and antibiotic-free meat and a butcher block large enough to accommodate half of a hog, my curiosity was piqued and my anxieties drifted away.
To begin, Jamie Waldron, author of The Home Butchering Handbook, an ebulliently energetic and boyish-looking butcher from Hamilton who offers courses and consults all over the province, explained his position. He places great importance on buying local, responsibly raised meat and endeavouring to use the whole animal, from nose to tail. I breathed a sigh of relief at his nod to the contradictions and complexities of the issue. And then I turned my attention to the half Tamworth hog lying on the block.
First, Waldron led us step-by-step through the kill process at the abattoir. My stomach churned and settled. Next, he explained how to trace an animal by the ink marks on its skin (edible, derived from blueberries). Then he reassured us that every carcass is inspected twice before being released to enter the food chain. And with that, we were off.
In groups of four, and under Waldron’s watchful eye, we worked to remove the head and then cut the remaining animal into four large pieces; shoulder and butt sections, tenderloin, and belly. With a razor sharp butcher’s knife, it’s surprisingly easy to slice through the meat and even the skin of a pig. It’s soft and yielding, completely odorless, and not at all disturbing. It’s also work that requires patience, precision, and a deft touch. There is artistry and beauty in butchering a half hog.
We worked fast and furiously for more than three hours. Waldron demonstrated clearly what to do and where to cut, how to remove ribs, fat, tricky bones, veins, and silver skin to maximize the prime cuts of meat. He showed us how to tie up a roast with string, and how to wrap and package the meat in pink butcher’s paper. Presentation is important to this craft; the meat must look as good as it tastes. No foam trays nor plastic wrap here.
This was satisfying work. While it was lovely to leave with a large pile of pork, butchered by my own hand, it was also reassuring to see that as Waldron had promised at the outset: 99 percent of the hog had been used.
These were the third and fourth butchery nights that Andrew Muckleston — owner of this eponymous store and a butcher himself since 2005 — has hosted with Waldron.
“Showing people the skills and knowledge of carcass butchery is something I’ve always enjoyed doing,” he explains. “It’s nice for people to actually see the ‘how to’ in where their meat comes from.” It also speaks clearly to his desire for transparency at the store. “We can answer anything about all our animals, right down to the feed plans, and if we don’t know an answer we can call and ask the farmers themselves,” he says.
By evening’s end, it’s clear that my interest in vegetarianism and veganism will remain just that. I feel confident that if there’s such a thing as ethical meat, this is it. There’s a thread that has run through this experience and it’s based in deep respect, from pasture to table.