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John Golden

John Golden writes about food and has a highly opinionated blog, The Golden Dish.

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Posted: October 20, 2014

Where’s the beef? The return of the classic butcher shop

The revival of the neighborhood butcher shop is strong in Maine, with master butchers relying on nose-to-tail butchery and the bounty from local farms.

Written by: John Golden

A growing trend in the culture of our  food-centric society is the return of the neighborhood butcher shop.  Growing up in New York City, I recall every neighborhood had at least two or three butchers along the various avenues of Manhattan. The floors were covered in sawdust and big, beefy (no pun intended) men held sway behind their butcher block cutting tables, knives and sharpening blades at the ready.

Butchers were mostly of Italian or German descent then, and the great tradition of American meat eaters were well fed by these staunch craftsmen who expertly cut the various cuts of poultry, beef, lamb, veal, pork and organ meats.

The full regalia of local meats at the Farm Stand with butcher Ben Slayton

The full regalia of local meats at the Farm Stand with butcher Ben Slayton

These shops all but disappeared when supermarkets became the main purveyors. Though New York maintains its core of master butchers to this day.

But there’s renewed interest with the growth of the classic butcher shop, offering a vital methodology of quality that involves locally farm-raised meats.  And such catchall phrases as natural, grass-fed, pastured, organic, sustainably raised farm meats are part of the vocabulary.

Throughout Maine the tradition of butcher shops has remained fairly constant abetted by the strength of Maine’s farmers’ markets with many vendors selling their bounty of farm-raised beef, lamb, poultry and pork.

Long-running specialty butchers, however, like Curtis Meats in Warren and Bisson’s in Topsham sell beef that comes directly from their large herds of cattle grazing on their own farmland.  At Bisson’s in particular the white clapboard building along the proverbial country road is their retail butcher shop–smack in the middle of hundreds of acres of verdant pasture land where their beef and dairy cows graze so happily in the field.

Bisson's beef and dairy cows on pastureland across from their retail butcher shop in Topsham

Bisson’s beef and dairy cows on pastureland across from their retail butcher shop in Topsham

The two faces of roast: sirloin custom cut at Bisson's and side of beef from which the back of the rump will be cut

The two faces of roast: sirloin custom cut at Bisson’s and side of beef from which the back of the rump will be cut by master butcher Ben Slayton at The Farm Stand

Curtis Meats remains a great purveyor of local meats, too, maintaining an old-fashioned hand at specialty butchery.  The butchers at Curtis like everything big.  T-bones and Porterhouses are two inches thick.  Great haunches of chuck, rump, sirloin, flank, skirt and hangar are duly sized as well.

The meat at both of these shops–naturally raised–is not called grass fed because the cattle are finished off on grain, adding that extra layer of fat compared to the leanness of 100 percent pastured meats.

The Portland area, however, is now awash in specialty butchers. Rosemont Market started it all some years after the demise of the Portland Public Market where the meat sold there came from Wolf’s Neck Farm before it was gobbled up by the Libra Foundation and rolled into Pineland Farms.

The new butcher shops as see at Rosemont and the Farm Stand

The new butcher shops as seen at Rosemont and the Farm Stand

At Rosemont they practice nose to tail butchery where complete animal carcasses are cut right at the shop.  The meat market was created by Jarrod Spangler, who has since moved on to open his own concern, MEat, in Kittery Foreside. The Rosemont butcher shops, both at the Brighton Avenue store and Commercial Street, are now managed by butcher Evan Mills.

Not to be outdone by Rosemont is the new shop in South Portland called The Farm Stand, a joint venture between Penny Jordan of Jordans Farm in Cape Elizabeth, master butcher Ben Slayton, owner of Farmer’s Gate Market in Wales, where his Little Alaska Farm is located, and Joe Fournier, formerly the creative soul of Rosemont’s operation who now manages The Farm Stand as part owner.

Still there are the longstanding Portland area butcher shops like Pat’s Meat Market in Deering, Smaha’s Market in South Portland, Fresh Approach on Brackett Street in Portland’s West End and Great East Butcher Company newly opened on Payne Road in Scarborough.  These butchers sell traditional cuts of meat (Great East sells some local meats) that come from the giant feed lots of the Midwest and Texas.  Grass fed and organic are not part of their vocabulary.

The Saturday rush at Pat's Meat Market and a New York Sirloin roast, custom cut at Rosemont's Commercial Street butcher shop

The Saturday rush at Pat’s Meat Market and a New York Sirloin roast, custom cut at Rosemont’s Commercial Street butcher shop

What counts, however, no matter the practice, is each butcher’s ability to carry on the art of custom butchery for a demanding public who are turning away from the pink slime world of supermarkets.  There’s great comfort in seeing your beef ground right in front of you and knowing where it came from.

In this, the beginning of a series, I’m going to investigate the old-fashioned butcher’s favorite–the venerable roast beef available at our key meat shops.  On Wednesday and Sunday columns for the next few weeks I will explore this cut of meat that goes beyond the more familiar prime rib or tenderloin.

These will be the cuts that you can buy to use for either everyday or special occasions.  These other cuts are often less expensive and cook up beautifully, and sometimes even better tasting than the traditional holiday roasts.

I  asked each butcher to name his favorite cut for roast beef. Cuts like rump roast, spoon roast and silver tip will be featured with an assessment of each.

On Wednesday I’ll feature the sirloin roast.  At Bisson’s I asked the butcher to cut the traditional sirloin steak into a 4-inch thick roast (about 4 1/2 pounds) to cook like the traditional dry oven  roast.  The results were amazing.

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