Saying “bacon” to a group of people isn’t dissimilar to saying “squirrel” to a dog. Eyes light up, tongues roll out, and tails – if they had them – would wag.
That’s the effect Brandon Sheard had recently on a group of students to whom he was teaching the finer points of butchery. The Vashon Island butcher runs Farmstead Meatsmith with his wife, Lauren. They offer slaughtering, butchering and charcuterie (curing) services.
Education is as important as their meat services, the couple says. Sure, they’ll turn your hog into tasty smoked bacon, but if you want to know how they did it they’ll happily show you. They offer the butchery class (and curing and slaughtering classes) periodically through the year.
The Sheards are part of what they call the Agrarian Renaissance – a rediscovery of agricultural practices largely shoved aside by the industrial revolution.
At their website, On The Anatomy of Thrift, the couple are producing high-quality instructional webisodes on home butchery, cookery, and meatsmith philosophy. After watching the beautifully produced videos, the consumer will be able to “cook a pig’s foot or cure a proscuitto,” they say.
In late September the Sheards gathered the group of six students from as near as Shelton and as far as Shaw Island in their A-frame house nestled in the woods on Vashon’s south end. Bacon curing was only part of the course, which featured basic cuts and sausage making.
Parts of a freshly slaughtered hog, the day’s subject, sat in plastic bins. A fearsome set of very sharp knives and saws were at the ready.
“Nothing is worse than dull knives. To have the most essential tool working against you is just misery,” Brandon said.
Lauren was working in the kitchen underneath a dangling collection of curing prosciutto and guanciale bacon. She was holding one of the couple’s two young sons in one arm while she made sourdough bread with the other.
“The art of curing is not just to make meat safe. It’s to manage spoilage in a delicious way,” Brandon says of the hanging meat, some of which will stay there for up to two years.
Factory curing may be down to a science, Brandon says, but it’s hardly an art. High quality meat needs individual attention. “If you cure high-quality pork within an inch of spoilage it’ll have all those nutty, buttery flavors that charcuterie should have.”
Even on unconventional Vashon Island, the Sheards aren’t your typical butchers. Brandon and Lauren have graduate degrees in Renaissance English Literature and Religion/Theology respectively.
In 2008 the couple moved to Vashon in search of a more rural life. Employed at Sea Breeze Farm, Brandon was introduced to small scale animal husbandry, butchery and charcuterie. He later moved to the farm’s restaurant and butcher shop, La Boucherie, as head butcher and charcutier.
Two years ago Brandon quit his job and the couple created Farmstead Meatsmith. Brandon, 28, handles the butchering while Lauren, 28, holds down the business end.
The education half of their business is what brought the group together on a sunny Friday in September. Jon Corcoran of Shelton, a middle school math teacher, was busy trimming back fat from sirloin while Mike Mahn of Shaw Island was cutting apart spare ribs. Mahn raises his own pigs at home and wanted to know how to butcher his own meat.
Brandon’s butchery customers raise their own animals. The hogs barely resemble factory-produced meat.
“It’s a completely different animal,” Brandon said. Factory farm-raised meat is leaner, floppier and greyer, he said. It’s also missing much of the fat needed for flavor and texture. Industrial farmers want the leanest meat they can get to reflect customer demand. Any feed costs that go into fat production on an animal is just lost money.
After the class practiced on cutting pork chops, ribs and shoulder roasts, they turned their attention to bacon. Bacon is surprisingly simple to prepare, though the class was only able to view two steps in the process: cutting and curing. Brandon laid the richly marbled bellies skin side down and then sprinkled them with a salt/sugar mix. He uses two parts sugar to one part salt. The process will draw out water for about four days after which the meat will be smoked.
Sausage is more complicated than bacon, but not difficult to master, provided you have the right tools. The first step is grinding the meat – which requires a meat grinder, of course. Brandon uses 70 percent meat and 30 percent fat from pork shoulder and sirloin.
On the day of class he turned two-thirds of the 23 pounds of meat into Italian sausage and the remaining into breakfast sausage. The two differ only in their spice and herb blends – plus a little maple syrup in the breakfast sausage. The most important ingredient is salt, Brandon said.
“If it’s not salted right you won’t taste anything. All the other herbs and spices will be irrelevant.”
The sausage meat was mixed by hand until it became almost stringy in its consistency. “It’s getting much more dough-like,” observed Sarah Wagstaff of Mount Vernon, the class’ only vegetarian.
It’s often said one shouldn’t see how sausage is made but the process is more amusing than unappetizing. Brandon buys the pre-cleaned sausage casings (the small intestines of a pig) online. They look like deflated earthworms.
The casings were slipped around the end of nozzle on a sausage press (another required machine). Using hand cranking the meat is forced into the casings which have one end tied off. The process went quickly.
When a casing was filled, Brandon rolled the sausage into four to five inch segments, much like a balloon artist makes a poodle. The key is to roll each segment in the opposite direction of the previous.
When he was finished Brandon turned the stove on and the minutes-old sausage went in a frying pan on medium heat. “If you put them on high, they’ll burst,” he said.
The group ended the class with the sausage, chili, salad and Lauren’s freshly baked bread laid out on an outdoor table.
Brandon isn’t finished learning himself. He wants to master salami-making next.
“The degree of deliciousness that salami can attain is pretty astronomical and I’ve only been able to attain that once.”Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541 craig.sailor@ thenewstribune.com