The new butcher shop at Tony Caputo’s Market and Deli may be the most challenging project the adventurous family owners of Salt Lake City’s leading source of top-notch food products have ever undertaken.
Going full steam ahead into offering fresh meat cuts, handmade sausages, and on-site smoked and cured charcuterie made from livestock raised in Utah, the Caputos know their capital investment – as with their cheese cave and affinage program – is destined for a project that will take easily a decade or more to take hold and realize a solid return. And, then there are governmental agricultural inspectors who will make sure that the shop meets regulations too numerous to list in compact form. Bureaucrats also will refuse to permit displays of meat products that exemplify their organic, natural production in the same manner one might find in any old-style butcher and meat shop in Europe.
Add in the skeptics and naysayers who are spreading their gospel wide about the myths of sustainable meat production. And, don’t forget the consumers who might be thinking twice about paying a premium for fresh meat cuts taken from genuine and humanely raised heritage livestock right here in Utah.
It would appear to be a formidable proposition in the extreme.
On the other hand, for Matt Caputo, one factor easily trumps all of these complicating considerations. Simply put, the butcher shop ‘supports those who have the bravery to stand up for what differentiates themselves as producers,’ he explains.
Pundits and experts aside, Caputo’s message may be resonating more solidly with consumers than what the conventional wisdom suggests. In 2011, the Center for Food Integrity (CFI), a nonprofit research group based in Missouri, conducted a survey about consumer perceptions about trust in the food industry with more than 2,000 respondents representing consumers as well as individuals from family and commercial farms.
As expected, consumers ranked safe, affordable and nutritious food as their most relevant priorities while a farm’s profitability and efficient productivity were scored the lowest. However, the most important results arose when consumers were asked about the priorities they considered most significant for family and commercial farms.
As the CFI chart below shows, family farms aligned more consistently with consumer expectations than commercial farms, as based on eight priorities. For example, commercial farmers ranked profitability as their second most important objective, as compared to consumers who ranked that objective next to last. Consumers rated the humane treatment of farm animals as the fourth highest priority, an objective that was ranked next to last by commercial farmers. In summary, the CFI report indicated:
‘There is an inverse relationship between the perception of shared values and priorities for commercial farms. Consumers fear that commercial farms will put profit ahead of principle and therefore cut corners when it comes to other priority issues. As farms continue to change in size and scale we have to overcome that bias by more effectively demonstrating our commitment to the values and priorities of consumers.’
CHART: The Center for Food Integrity
For evidence, one need look no further than the Utah micro-ranch suppliers of Caputo’s butcher shop. More evidence is found in the skilled hands of Frody Volgger, one of the state’s best-known chefs who ran the former Vienna Bistro in downtown Salt Lake City. Volgger, who has more than 40 years of experience as a butcher and maker of charcuterie going back to his formative years in Alto Adige and Salzburg, is crafting a line of fresh handmade sausages (the lamb varieties being among the most spectacular for taste and texture), hams, and other products such as beautifully tempered smoked meats including Bauernspeck ham, Coppa Affumicata, and Sudterol Jadwurst.
Likewise, he is responsible for offering quite a diverse array of standard and custom meat cuts from lamb, pork, beef, goat, and, soon, chicken. Homemade hot dogs and head cheese also are on the forthcoming list.
The most essential elements to the enterprise’s potential success are Utah family farmers who are resurrecting a humanized approach to American animal husbandry and who are reminding us, in echoing the words of Michael Pollan, that it is possible to eat meat with the ‘consciousness, ceremony and respect they [the animals] deserve.’
The names already are gradually becoming familiar to Utah consumers and a worthy sampling of the state’s most respected restaurateurs: Pleasant Creek Ranch, Canyon Meadows Ranch, Lau Family Farm, Christiansen’s Family Farms, Snowy Mountain Sheep Creamery, and Shepherds Goat and Cheese Products. Along with a steadily growing core of other sustainable ranchers and family farms in Utah, their agricultural leadership testifies to why these important shifts in consumer perceptions should be nurtured and strengthened.
In developing the shop’s supplier program, Caputo established two criteria: animals must be of heritage breed and farmers must demonstrate a near-total dedication to pasture grazing. The implications extend far beyond gastronomy.
Grass-fed and pasture-fed meats, as shown in a growing body of research literature (e.g., Nutrition Journal, Meat Science, Journal of Lipid Research, Journal of Nutrition, Canadian Journal of Animal Science, just to name a few peer-reviewed publications), contain more of the health-friendly fatty acids and antioxidants than grain-fed meat. On the other hand, particularly in areas where consumer tastes are predisposed to meat from livestock that has been grain fed, trained consumer tasting panels have found that individuals do not generally prefer the flavor and texture profiles in pasture-fed meat.
Thus, it is important to remember that these distinctions might be more a matter of embedded culture priming than anything else so it’s wiser and more practical to approach the issue more creatively than just merely on the merits of empirical science. That being said, Caputo’s, for example, offers Pleasant Creek Ranch beef in which the cattle spend most of their time (14 months) grazing in pasture and then have grain during the last four months. Indeed, the beef imparts a unique yet ideal profile in healthful taste and marbled texture and it represents the healthful benefits connected to products made from sustainable farming.
In much broader terms, part of the value-added proposition in this butcher program model is the meat’s exceptional taste that comes through rich natural pasture flavors untainted by pesticides or antibiotics especially in lambs, cattle, and goats. And, in the case of pigs, the pork’s marbled texture is manifested by way of the animal’s vegetarian diet comprising locally grown grains, hay, and alfalfa.
The results are worth every penny. The fresh lamb, for example, from Snowy Mountain Sheep Creamery, is as unforgettable for its color as it is for its lean meat not at all gamey in flavor, as compared to the commercially produced package found in many supermarket chains.
At Snowy Mountain, with a rapidly gaining reputation for its sheep’s milk cheeses, Stig and Susan Hansen maintain a flock of French Lacaune lambs, a breed well known for its milk that farmers in the southern French regions have sold regularly to Roquefort plants; East Friesians from Germany which are just as a rich milk source as the Lacaunes but do not have the same fat and protein content as their French counterparts, and Purebred Icelandic animals that are Canadian registered. It is these lambs that Susan Hansen calls, ‘triple purpose sheep,’ prized for their top-quality milk, meat attributes, and exquisite fleece. (Photo courtesy of Ryan Kendrick)
In Utah, the art of humane animal husbandry requires extraordinary skill and a conscience strictly adherent to an ethical culture, especially given the state’s contrasts between sunny summers with temperatures often rising into the triple digits and long cold, wet winters with lots of snow. The Hansens are exemplarily meticulous, also working closely with researchers at the University of Wisconsin, Utah State University, and other institutions to ensure the long-term viability and genetic integrity of their breeds. As Susan has indicated to Caputo, ‘I am fortunate to have three top breeds that I can cross every third generation and have very healthy sheep that are disease and parasite resistant and can tolerate our high altitude and climatic conditions.’
The Hansens also resist a common temptation among sheep ranchers who feed grain to their lambs, which, as a result, tend to develop extra fat and a stronger flavor, attributes that appeal to a good number of consumers. Once they have been weaned from their mothers, generally after a month to six weeks following birth, the lambs then graze on organic pastures with plenty of natural grass and legumes. Perhaps, the most noticeable difference comes in animals older than a year, which normally are classified as mutton and whose meat is more suited to longer braising times in stews or stocks. Even the Moroccan and Greek lamb sausages that Volgger has produced from a three-year-old animal were so clean and delicate in flavor that one could easily have sworn that the meat came from a young lamb.
There is no question that Snowy Mountain is a natural fit for Caputo’s butcher model. ‘It is not about money,’ Susan explains. ‘It is about life and people; it is about quality and sincerity. It is about integrity and ethics.’
The same level of conscientious effort in animal husbandry is found at Christiansen Family Farms. In commercial farms, according to information provided by the farm, the average living space allocated to a hog would be just 6.8 square feet. At Christiansen, it’s 2,100 square feet. And, unlike others who feed their hogs slop, old bread and pastries, or table scraps, the farm employees raise their animals on locally grown alfalfa and grass hay as well as Utah grown wheat, barley, oats, and triticale grains.
There is no mistaking the distinction in flavors of Christiansen’s Berkshire pork, also known as kurobuta, which has become a mainstay in many of the best pork dishes in Salt Lake City restaurants, such as The Copper Onion and its recently opened sister Plum Alley. Caputo, however, believes that Christiansen pork will be taken to yet even higher levels in flavor and texture quality as the farm has added Large Black and Mulefoot breeds.
These animals, known for their extraordinarily tender meat, can sustain themselves virtually on pasture grazing alone. Unlike other breeds, which have the split hoof, the Mulefoot pig has a solid hoof resembling a horseshoe. In particular, Christiansen’s breeding techniques are widely acknowledged for returning stronger mothering instincts in the breeds. And, true to form, the farm does not allow tail docking, nose rings, or teeth clipping of animals.
Back in downtown Salt Lake City, in the same place where more than five years ago Cristiano Creminelli cured the first batch of salami that now has earned international attention, Volgger is working with an equally strong sense of artistic passion. His culinary laboratory is home to all sorts of resourcefulness — blending salts from the store’s cosmopolitan inventory to create unique foundational profiles for his sausages and charcuterie. He’ll occasionally gently smoke trout and other seafood items from the Aquarius Fish Co., Caputo’s retail neighbor.
‘My goal here is zero waste,’ he says, adding that all of the bones and meat scraps are fed into stocks for the store’s daily deli operations. Likewise, amateur and professional cooks will be able to obtain those bones and scraps for their own soulful creations.
As for Volgger, he also has an apprentice – Dillan Hayes from the nearby Carlucci’s bakery and restaurant. It is a small yet encouraging sign that this new Caputo’s venture could leave an imprint upon Utah’s food culture. Hopefully, it will inspire others to demonstrate that the notion of a sustainable meat agricultural industry is not a novelty for the curious few but a critical link toward redefining our food production industry for the benefit of all consumers.
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