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No bones about it: The butcher is back

Knife in hand, Ryan Farr surveys the fresh whole lamb carcass stretched out on the cutting board, garnet flesh wrapped in a thin coat of pearlescent fat.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Knife in hand, Ryan Farr surveys the fresh whole lamb carcass stretched out on the cutting board, garnet flesh wrapped in a thin coat of pearlescent fat.

He cuts into the ribs with the practiced skill of an old-time meat cutter, but Farr's not your grandmother's butcher. He's been on TV with Martha Stewart, has a new book out, "Whole Beast Butchery," and is one of a group of culinary luminaries on the cutting edge of a new food movement — the carnivore connection.

"A lot of people have gotten hip to, Who's your farmer? The next step is, Who's your butcher?" says Anya Fernald of Belcampo California, which has a 10,000 acre farm in Northern California's Shasta Valley raising pastured and free range beef cattle, pork, lamb and other animals.

Knowing your butcher used to be a key factor in putting tasty food on the table. But with the advent of plastic-wrapped steaks and chops that appear as if by magic in cold cases, the butcher became all but invisible, a white-coated figure glimpsed occasionally through a swinging supermarket door.

Farr, a classically trained chef, came to butchery as a cook first, teaching himself the basics of meat-cutting as a restaurant chef and sous chef. In 2009, he and his wife, Cesalee, founded 4505 Meats in San Francisco, a meat company that supplies a number of area restaurants and also the site of Farr's popular butchery classes for home cooks.

"Whole Beast Butchery," a visual guide to cutting up beef, pork and lamb with photographic step-by-step instructions, is intended to get more butchering novices started. "Basically, we needed to have something that I wish I had when I was learning this whole process of butchering," says Farr.

Understanding the characteristics of the various animal parts — is it lean, is it fatty, did it move a lot, a little — helps in figuring out how best to cook them, Farr says. Meanwhile, buying whole animals, or going in with another family or two for the big cuts like a side of beef, means you'll likely know where the animal is coming from and how it was raised. An added bonus is that when you butcher your own meat you'll get the lesser-known and cheaper cuts that often don't make it into supermarkets, such as lamb neck and shanks, delicious when properly cooked.

The return of the butcher comes at a time when interest in meat is high, from the national obsession with bacon to the wave of chefs championing the less-heralded animal parts like cheeks, ears and skin.

In 2012, Belcampo plans to open a slaughterhouse to process its meat as well as that of local farmers, a significant development considering that a lack of slaughterhouses in Northern California means ranchers must often drive animals hundreds of miles to the nearest plant. The company also plans to open a butcher shop in the Marin County Mart in the San Francisco suburb of Larkspur in June.

"My sense is that as a meat consumer in America, it's very hard to find quality, source-verified meat," says Fernald. "I wanted to build a butcher shop where we could offer an experience to consumers which was like what your grandmother had in a butcher shop."

Butcher and chef Adam Sappington of The Country Cat in Portland, Ore., who also teaches butchery classes, finds that learning how to break down an animal gives people more confidence in walking into a butcher shop and ordering so-called "off cuts" like neck or lamb belly.

"Part of the butchery process is using the whole thing," says Sappington. "The book that Ryan's putting out is great. Hopefully, it can broaden the horizons of the American consumer to say there's something out there other than rack of lamb."

But to get back to the carcass awaiting Farr's knife, specifically, a lamb that not too long ago was presumably gamboling on the pastures of Don Watson's Napa Valley Lamb Co. Farr begins by sharpening a fearsome array of knives on a whetstone and then starts on the animal, first cutting off the neck and using the cleaver and a mallet to chop through the bone. Two hacksaws, one big, one little, are pressed into service as the legs, shoulders and breast are turned into neat packages.

An hour or so into the lesson, what was a lamb carcass is now a tray full of steaks, roasts, chops and a stainless steel tub of what will probably become sausages and stew meat.

"One of the most amazing aspects for me, when you learn the anatomy of the animal and how the animal walks and sleeps, you become a better cook. There's no question about it," says Sappington. "You learn what makes the flavor, what enhances the animal, what makes it taste as good as it possibly can. And that to me is worth every moment that I spend at the butcher block breaking down animals. There's a lot to it."

Farr is hoping to spark a return to the days when more consumers were in touch with where their meat came from. "People really want that," he says. "Our classes have had a big impact because we're coming close to completing the circle, knowing where the animal is from, know what you're eating, know how to cut it, know how to cook it."