Butchering meat an art at Arbor Farms

Arbor Farms partners with Lamb Farms, which supplies them grass-fed lambs and beef. I focused on Lamb Farm's side of the handshake yesterday - Arbor Farms is today. Robert Cantelon has been part of the food business for nearly 40 years and though he traveled afar his journey begins and ends in Ann Arbor. Cantelon started as the baker in the Sun Bakery (the site of the current AnnArbor.com offices) in 1973 and is currently a partner at Arbor Farms. Over the years he has gained a lot of stories and a lot of respect for the world of food: “it is an intense business.”

In such an intense environment it is imperative a store stay nimble and competitive, Arbor Farms’ commitment to purchase and butcher all of the meat Lamb Farm produces is one of the ways they choose to distinguish themselves from the smorgasbord of grocery options in Ann Arbor.

“It is a commitment we made to him [John Smucker], with considerable investment on our part, because we wanted that supply chain.” Cantelon explains.

Arbor Farms has invested in a meat cutting room and an onsite butcher. As I discussed yesterday, Lamb Farm transports their organic pasture raised animals to one of the two organic meat-processing facilities in Michigan. Arbor Farms picks up the meat and processes them onsite.

“There are good things and there are limitations,” Jeremy Chavez, Arbor Farms’ butcher, says, “when people say, I want a pound of hamburger…100% Michigan hamburger, they don’t realize I have to cut all of this [he gestures to the cow on the table] before I can get to that. If you go to a grocery chain it is in a tube, all of the chunks from 100-500 different cows go in one stew, and they just grind it.”

Cantelon jumps in, “the processing facilities are getting into the business of boning it out and packaging it with the gas sucked out of it. They put the meat into packages with the gas sucked out for longer shelf life, up to 21 days. It is eliminating the need for butchers in the stores, the whole meat industry is going that way.”

On his recent visit to Ann Arbor, Michael Pollan spoke of this progression. “First there were butchers and you could actually see carcasses being cut up occasionally, and then [the meat was] always prepackaged, and then the bones disappeared.” Arbor Farms is helping all of us remember that the animal protein we eat belonged to a living breathing creature.

I know the job of carving animals is somewhere in my blood because my grandmother’s maiden name was Butcher, but watching Chavez work rendered me speechless. The precision required with the relentless hum of the saw and the sharpness of the long knives, the breaking down of a side that looked like my wet dog’s tendons, muscles, bones, and sinews, and the transformation of that wet dog into the identifiable plastic wrapped pieces one blithely reaches for in coolers was completely overwhelming. I was unable to tear my eyes away.

Not only is butchering a very physical and nimble use of one’s facilities - I believe there is a great deal of art to it. I say that because I have eaten venison reminiscent of gamey cardboard and I have eaten venison that melts in my mouth and renders me incoherent - both animals from the wild. I feel that difference is due to the skill of the butcher, just ask someone who loves sashimi.

Here are a few videos of the process so that you too can see this fundamental step on the animal’s progress towards lamb chop and steak.

There are two more items to share about Lamb Farm’s lamb and beef available at Arbor Farms. The 2009 lambs have all been harvested, which means there will be a few month break until the 2010 lambs are ready to be processed. When you cook the beef, it is tender. Tender to the point where it is very easy to overcook because you cannot rely on your sense of touch to tell you when the meat is ready.

Borden - Lamb Farm beef on top of salad

As for the flavor of Lamb Farm’s 100% grass fed, organically raised, beef - butchered and available at Arbor Farms, I ended up chewing on the bone like when I was 10.

It was sublime.

Here is a link to the article on annarbor.com.