Artisanal butchers on the rise in France

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      One of the signature dishes at Vij's came to mind recently when, at a butcher's stall in the halles in Carcassonne, I noticed a sign saying sucettes d'agneaux—lamb popsicles. This French version wasn't exotically spiced or served with a cream sauce, like it is at Vij's, but a long roll of meat punctuated every couple of centimetres by a small skewer. When I asked the butcher, Gilbert Arnaud, what these sucettes were, he cut off an end piece so he could show me the logic behind his invention. He takes the long, thin section normally removed from a rack of lamb and wraps it around a core of house-made sausage-lamb and pork are excellent together, he remarked. Sprinkled with herbes de Provence and paprika, the outside coat, a thin layer of fat, not only protects the meat from the fire of the grill but melts and crisps as the lamb cooks. Simply serve the sucettes as a snack with apéritifs.

      His business card lists him as butcher, charcuterie maker, and caterer. His delight and pride in what he does and how good it tastes is as real as the meat he sells as an artisan boucher—a self-explanatory term. Artisanal butchers even have a national organization, which publishes its own seasonal consumer newsletter, with the lead story in the current issue of Mon Boucher focusing on the young butchers of tomorrow. With 70,000 butchers employed in France and more than 5,000 positions coming open each year, according to the story, being a butcher offers a bright future. Of the three students profiled, two are young women.

      A jeune femme drives—and serves behind the counter of—the refrigerated truck that brings meat to our village of Léran each Thursday at 10 a.m., a shrill horn toot announcing its arrival in sync with the church bells. After lunch, the bouchère stops at four or five villages in the Aude, the adjoining department. This week as she weighed out my 500 grams of fresh sausage, she recalled our conversation a while back and asked me if, this time, I was making stuffed zucchini. Before wrapping the sausage, she removed the skin so I wouldn't have to go to the trouble.

      Fair enough. These are individual businesses; they are going to take care. But even in the supermarkets in France, you can ask for a specific cut of meat to be carefully cut, barded with fat, and tied. The selection is a carnivore's dream, and is never exactly the same. For instance, yesterday, as well as the usual steaks, chops, duck breast, and chicken complete with heads and feet, I could also have bought a small container of rabbit livers.

      What prompted this column was the depressing news that Jackson's on Granville Street has shut up shop, shoehorned out by rent increases. Gone are the house-made steak-and-kidney pies, and that baroque bird-inside-a-bird that they used to make at Christmas. Real butchers, butchers with imagination and pride, are a dying breed in Vancouver.

      Meanwhile, here in the Ariège, the same vans that do the rounds of small villages show up at weekly markets (three vans in the nearby town of Lavelanet, population 7,000, plus two stalls in the halles). A couple of years ago, newly returned from France, I wrote a story for a magazine about the joys of the weekly market, about how you often run into friends, buy a rotisserie chicken, or lamb chops or steaks to sling on the barbecue, and end up at your place or theirs for a long and impromptu lunch. "Now that Vancouver has farmers markets," I pitched the editor, "we can duplicate an authentic vie en rose right here in British Columbia." Reality smacked hard when, mulling over the menu the night before the market, I realized that the only meat I could buy there and have time to cook for lunch was frozen sausages.

      Whether you eat meat or not is your decision. But back in December 2007, writing in the New Yorker, author Bill Buford asked the question: "Is it possible that meat is now openly enjoying a renaissance—that it's finally cool to be a carnivore?" The article profiled Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, U.K. advocate of knowing exactly where your meat comes from, of respecting the animal; Québécois chef Martin Picard of Montreal's Au Pied de Cochon, who takes the "nose to tail" approach; and a French butcher, Stéphane Reynaud from France's Ardeche region, all of whom, at that time, had recently published books. What tied all of these guys together was concern for how animals are raised and slaughtered. "Honouring" the cow or pig you're about to eat is a bit touchy-feely in my view, but you get the idea.

      France is an intensely carnivorous country, with steak frites instead of sushi as the preferred lunch, and here butchery is still a profession. Shoppers expect a lot of their butchers. Besides mourning Jackson's, Vancouverites may also miss the butcher's shop at Vancouver Community College. In a phone interview, James Hutton, assistant department head of culinary arts, says the VCC butchery program ended about five years ago, due to "lack of enrollment.”¦It's no longer a well-paying job compared to what it was." Butchery still goes on at VCC, he says. Chefs in training there "get an opportunity to cut a side of beef, veal, pork, and a lamb on a weekly basis. Students get a chance to get their fingers in there, so they'll know how to purchase [meat] in the future."

      Despite this, Vancouver is better off than it was even five years ago, thanks to restaurateurs like Sean Heather, who popularized charcuterie, and the Oyama Sausage Company, with a five-generation history of working with meat, and one of the few Vancouver merchants whose hams, terrines, and duck confit are equals of anything I can find in France. Already, it's leading to an increased interest in the lesser-known parts of an animal, which in turn will lead to a need for more butchers who know how to wield a knife with precision.

      Right now, says Hutton, all supermarket meat in Vancouver is cut and packaged elsewhere as primal cuts of either sides or quarters. I can only assume French supermarkets get the entire animal. How else to explain the man wandering the aisles in the suitably named Géant supermarket the other day with a whole, plastic-wrapped lamb carcass, obviously fresh rather than frozen, lolling in his shopping cart?