I had heard of Tia Harrison and knew that she was the co-owner and chef at Sociale. What I did not know was that she was also a co-owner of Avedano’s Holly Park Market in Bernal Heights and taught a monthly class there designed “to teach you the specifics of the art of home butchery and grant you knife-wielding dominion over your kitchen.”
Ever since I had read Bill Buford’s “Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany” and made the requisite pilgrimage to Dario Cecchini’s Antica Macelleria Cecchini in Panzano, south of Florence, I had been harboring an interest to learn more about butchery. This sounded like a great opportunity!
Initially our son Patrick, bound for vet school at Auburn in the Fall, was going to join me for the class (my thought was this would give him a head start on his anatomy lessons). However, unfortunately Pat ended up with a conflict so last Sunday afternoon I set out on my own for Avedano’s.
There were six of us in the class. Tia greeted us and then herded us into Avedano’s Udder Room where we suited up in butcher’s aprons. Tia passed out some basic instructions, including a description of some of the instruments we would be using – boning knife, hand saw, cleaver and bone scraper among them. It sounds like not too much has changed around the old butcher shop since the 16th century when Pieter Aertsen painted “The Meat Stall.”
First on the agenda for the afternoon was a pig and Tia went over the steps to “break down” a pig into its four “primals” – no euphemisms here. We then moved to the working area (I was pleased to see that Avedano’s did not stoop to asking us to sign insulting releases of the sort “I know that knives are dangerous....”). Tia went over to the meat locker and returned pulling a suckling pig dangling from a meat hook on an overhead trolley. I was in the first position so she turned to me and instructed me to lift it down off the hook, put it on the table and cut its head off. And away we went, each of us taking a turn to make a cut as Tia directed.
Although the two animals we worked on during the day had been completely gutted and were relatively blood-free, there is a very different feel about dismembering a relatively complete mammal. It certainly gets ones attention and gave me more respect for the animal and the task at hand.
After we had broken down the pig we took a break and returned to the Udder Room for some very tasty tacos. Then it was back to the work area and another trip to the meat locker to wheel out a sheep of about 80 pounds.
The sheep proved to be much harder work – obviously a bigger animal = bigger bones. Unlike modern slaughter houses which are constantly humming with electric band saws, Avedano’s does not use any electric cutting tools so everything was cut by hand using knives, cleavers and hand saws. We spent quite a bit of time breaking down the two forequarters of the animal.
Since our time was getting a bit short, Tia called in Dave Budworth, the resident expert butcher, who went to work on the hind quarters. It was a pleasure to watch Dave at work. I would not say that everything he did was completely effortless, but it was certainly considerably more so than the work of the students. This was butchery, but there was definitely a grace and elegance that Dave brought to the task – not to mention his cool metal knife holster dangling from a chain on his hip.
At the end of the day Tia divided up the cuts from the two animals among us and sent us on our ways. She had asked whether anyone wanted the pig’s head and when no one else jumped in I raised my hand. It seemed like a good idea at the time (I had been thinking about our recent Procededdu Arrustiu (roasted suckling pig) dinner at La Ciccia), but on the drive home I began to wonder. I decided that if I was going to do something with it at all I better do it that night since Nancy was coming home from her trip to Yellowstone on Tuesday.
After a bit of Googling I determined that 2 hours tented in tinfoil at 375° with an olive oil basting every 20 minutes would be my best shot. Luckily it turned out perfectly. When I took it out of the oven the sun was just setting and the late afternoon rays gave the roasted head some wonderful highlights on the dining room table.
As I settled in to dinner – just me and the head (use of knife and fork optional) – all I could think of was the scene from the Inferno of Dante’s encounter with Count Ugolino and Archbishop Ruggieri.
INFERNO (Canto XXXIII, ln. 70-73)
I saw two shades frozen in a single hole
packed so close, one head hooded the other one;
the way the starving devour their bread,
the soul above had clenched the other with his teeth,
where the brain meets the nape.
Butchery has been getting quite a bit of attention in the Bay Area in the recent past. A program – The Art of the Butcher – was presented at UC Berkeley in March at which Dave Budworth and Melanie Eisemann of Avedano’s participated, and MEATPAPER has done a couple of very interesting articles – "Pig Slaughter – Monterero Val Cocchiara" and "The Whole Animal Challenge." In addition to the Avedano’s classes, Ryan Farr, who participated in the Berkeley program, also gives butchery demonstrations as shown in this excellent set of photos.