The Carnivore Club
Eating Meat Becomes a Refined Art
It’s a Monday evening and about 60 well-dressed men and women are packed into the dining room at Café Rouge in the hip and happening part of Berkeley’s Fourth Street. Only thing is, we’re not hunkered around tables drinking wine, chatting and biting into beautifully presented menu items, as one might expect. Instead, we’re sitting in rows watching intently as master butcher Scott Brennan wields a bloody knife, slices into flesh and severs limbs from limp bodies.
Yes, there are enticing snacks being passed around on large platters: duck prosciutto and fava bean crostini; tea-smoked quail; fried rabbit with potato and green garlic warm salad. And there’s wine. But the audience at this, one of a regular series of teaching classes featuring small and larger animals, are here to learn best butchering practices so, in theory at least, we can do it ourselves at home.
Marsha McBride opened Café Rouge, her eatery and meat market, in 1996. In January 2009 she began offering butchery classes in response to a growing demand from customers wanting a more intimate relationship with their meat. Think of it as the opposite of buying it pre-packaged, pre-cut and anonymous — and most likely from a feedlot — from the supermarket.
“During our years of business, there’s been a steady increase in retail meat sales along with increasing sales on meat menu items,” says McBride. This reflects the growing trend throughout the Bay Area and in sophisticated food circles nationally toward eating more meat and knowing more about the meat we eat.
“During the recent recession that began in earnest in 2008 for us, our meat market sales have increased steadily while the restaurant business flattened out,” says McBride. “I think in general the public are more focused on the husbandry and provenance of meat. And it’s not unusual now for a customer to bring a recipe to the meat counter for a consultation on how to execute a dish.”
We’ve all seen the proliferation of charcuteries. McBride, who started doing the European-style dried and cured meat thing in the 1980s while working at San Francisco’s Zuni Café, has watched that movement grow with some fascination. “People are becoming more adventuresome with what they will try,” she says.
By way of one of many carnivorous examples, about three years ago I heard a Bay Area chef complain he could not put pork belly on his menu and hope to sell it. Now, pork belly is as ubiquitous as the cheap truffle oil that has made this once-delicacy standard fare.
That carnivorism is “in” has also played out in flavor of Cal graduate Carrie Oliver. She is the founder of the Oliver Ranch Company Artisan Beef Institute, which she set up to market her ideas around beef and “to introduce meat lovers and sustainable agricultural supporters to the notion that relying on USDA grade or labels such as organic and grass-fed is not enough,” to quote her.
You know how once there was red wine, white wine, French wine and everything else was plonk and then suddenly, it seemed, appellations and terroir were standard terms in the vocabulary of anyone who ever sipped a glass of Pinot Noir? That, followed by blind chocolate tastings, blind olive oil tastings; and now the growing gourmet coffee movement that says you better buy yours from a small batch and for heaven’s sake don’t let it be roasted yesterday, or beware the wrath of the food police, who could be your next-door neighbors?
Oliver is enjoying growing success with the blind beef tastings that she holds around the country, or “sells” in kit form from her website so you can do a blind tasting with friends at home. She’s invented a whole meat vocabulary based on wine-tasting lingo to help. “People are really embracing the idea and the tastings are growing in popularity,” she says.
McBride’s butchery classes, meanwhile, are also getting more sign-ons. “Knowledge and skill among our students vary from amateur sausage makers to meat groupies who find thrill in the breakdown of whole carcasses,” she says, adding that they relish the chance to learn about breeding, genetics and slaughtering techniques from the horse’s mouth. That is, the ranchers she invites along.
The meat movement is growing. So, too, is the national Meatless Monday concept, which suggests we do just this — abstain on Mondays. Will this counterbalance the call for more meat? If you ask me, the two movements are like meat and potatoes — complimentary with room for both.
Are you eating your meat?