Butchery Workshop 103: Learning About The Meat We Eat

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Learning is often what I think keeps me from going insane. The boredom of just doing nothing overwhelms me and I need more from this wonderful life. What that means is that I take advantage any opportunity to find out more about the areas that interest me. Tonight found me in the back room of The Healthy Butcher in Toronto, and it was the best $80 and three hours I have spent in this city. Would others agree with me? Maybe not, because if you are not desensitized to meat, then the class could feel like a scene from Silence of the Lambs without any fava beans or Chianti.

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As usual, the awful subway system in Toronto left me coming late even though I left early, but never mind. I was quickly ushered into the shop and the class began. Let me start by pointing out that this was not a hands-on class, nor could I imagine any butcher turning over knives and carcasses to a group of foodies. Let me also add that I learned so much for our instructor, David Meli, that I know not where to begin, but I will.
The class focused on a complete lamb and half of an elk. David’s ability to teach was impressive, and that means something coming from a teacher of 14 years. He was clear, answered questions with honest opinions, and demonstrated a mastery of his trade. While it is unlikely that most people would even be able to access such large animals without a wholesale connection, the knife techniques demonstrated and the explanations of the different cuts made the meat come alive for a fairly accomplished home cook. There were epiphanies about why certain cuts worked with the various styles I cook in, and what I was really needing to work with in the future.

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Without giving away too much to hopeful attendees, I learned what cuts to look for at butcher stores and why, I learned about the meat industry on many levels, I learned a few carving techniques, and I learned that a butcher’s cleaver “butchers” meat and what I need is a solid European boning knife.
The three hours were hard on my feet (I did not wear the right shoes), but who cared. I might have also eaten most of the terrine on offer (mea culpa). The night was worthwhile and it was nice to learn from a man who cares about his trade; I have so much respect for a master tradesman…much more than I would give a doctor or lawyer. As I learned at a McGill party once, out of a class of 30 medical students only one could tell me how many bones are in a human body. Bet the butcher knew!

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So what about the gore and death? Hmmm, if you want a hands-on session where meat is cut into cubes and does not resemble an animal, then this is not really for you. Yes, these were once animals you could have petted, but if you eat meat then, as hard as it is for animal-lovers, you need to understand what it takes to put that steak on your plate; we all need to acknowledge that styrofoam trays of meat are not the answer. Eat better quality, humane meat less often, and avoid cheap mass production for the sake of pounding down kilos of filet mignon a week.
If you have never yearned to be able to buy a hunk of meat at Cost-Co to butcher at home or wished you knew more hunters who could drop you a side of deer, then I would stick to a sausage-making class. Me, I see great beauty in being able to let a bone move your knife, in being able to grind your own burgers at home and to cut steaks and roasts from a non-Loblaws source.
Next week, I am at the Queen Street store learning about beef hip and loin. Sadly, these were the only two classes I could enroll in for now as the rest are full, but I will be checking back feverishly because it was mentioned that maybe if you took enough classes then you might be allowed to stage at a store…it would be a dream come true for me, and I could do such a thing on my 2 months of summer vacation, since I have time and money on my side. How cool would that be? Oh well, for now it is just a dream, but I do have a way of making dreams reality – it is what I do.

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