Margaret and Dick   


October '09: Artisan butcher

Where meat comes from, part deux

In Jean-Louis Garcia’s butcher shop, we used to see a portrait photo, with name and statistics like a pin-up, of a steer that had won a prize at a regional fair.  JL had bought it and proudly displayed the steaks and roasts in his shop.  The portrait is gone, but he still goes out to the farms to personally select each animal for his boucherie.  Even in this era of mad cow, we don’t worry about food traceability here.  Chez Jean-Louis, you know exactly where each piece of meat comes from.  We eat relatively little meat, and JL’s prices are higher than the supermarket, but for that special piece of meat, Garcia’s is the place to go.  Limoux story readers were introduced to Garcia when he catered the pig roast for the vine owners of our local winery.   

We now stop into boucherie Garcia more often, sometimes just to say hello on the early-morning newspaper/coffee/bread run, and we’ve come to realize what an artisan JL is.  After hefting a 100-lb beef quarter onto a hook, he reduces it to steaks, roasts, and ribs with a surgeon’s precision.  Not a trace of membrane, gristle or excess fat remains, and little meat is wasted.  No scraps left for hamburger.  JL is one of the artisans that make life in Limoux so rewarding and so delicious.  It helps that he likes to eat:  the French use the euphemism costaud (solid or strong) to describe his ample physique.

Our friend Josiane had asked if we knew about the specialty cuts poire (pear), merlan (fish), and araignée (spider).  Accustomed to English words like sirloin or rib roast, we didn't know what she was talking about.  It turns out these are specialty muscles tucked between the big working muscles of back and leg.  They don’t do much work and are therefore much tenderer.  It takes skill and patience to extract them.

We promised to try them, and Josiane warned, “Just don’t do it in a week when I want it.”  So one day we ordered the poire (#10 on the chart), to be custom cut after the next beef delivery.  When I came to pick it up, JL pulled from the fridge a perfect pear-shaped 1½-lb morsel.  With his scalpel, er, knife, he delicately peeled off the membrane protecting the meat surface, gently worked his knife between muscle segments to extract the meat, and then sliced it into ½ inch slices for quick frying.  “Slap it into the hot pan for a few seconds, turn and sear the other side, then it is done.”  It was marvelous, with the texture of tenderloin but the full flavor of sirloin.

JL was delighted when Margaret suggested we write up his shop as a Limoux story.  “But why?”  “To tell our friends back in the USA about our life in Limoux and the artisans like you who make it so special.”  He smiled at our attention and respect for his trade.  At the photo shoot, Margaret followed the dissection of a beef quarter to reveal the tender morsels, as JL’s apprentice (left in photo), fresh from two years of butcher school, recited the names of the muscles he was revealing.

It’s not easy running a business in France.  The “social charges” for an employee are fully equal to the worker’s salary.  Once hired, workers are almost impossible to fire or lay off due to stringent work rules.  JL has two workers currently on sick leave, one already gone a year and a half, and he’s obligated to pay their social charges for up to three years.  No wonder French small businesses usually hire family!  When JL’s wife died of cancer a few years ago, daughter Elodie (right in photo) gave up a career as couturière in Paris to join the family business.  (Limoux turned out en masse for the funeral, and the crowd overflowed into the street.)  Son Jeremy recently signed on as an apprentice.

JL invited us on an expedition to the plateau de Sault, a moist green region known for its potatoes and verdant pastures, to choose his next veal and meet one of his éleveurs.  It was 9pm on a Friday night when we reached the plateau and a fragrant stable smack-dab in the middle of a village.  Gilbert Faucher, a French classic in a one-piece coverall, seemed pleased that we had come to admire his life’s work.  We understood little of his strongly accented French.  The plateau de Sault may be less than an hour away from Limoux, but it easily qualifies as la France profonde – the deep countryside.

Veal sous la mère is Faucher’s specialty:  calves raised on cow’s milk.  Unlike most producers, Faucher uses no powdered milk.  He keeps up to three milk cows for each calf.  There are no cages as in American agribusiness.  At night the cows and calves are confined in the barn on ropes long enough to walk around.  By day, the nursemaid cows go out to graze.  Calves nurse morning and evening.  Not economically feasible?  He does it anyway, with passion.  Jean-Louis describes him as a poet.

The cows and calves in the barn – even the bull – are comfortable with strangers.  Faucher is with them daily and talks to them.  He loves his beasts.  When a cow is ready to deliver, he says, “I sleep in the stable, behind the cow, not in my bed behind the wife.”

Let’s pause to think about this for a moment.  This farmer has lived a life of sacrifice, not cutting any corners, to provide consumers with the highest quality veal that can be produced.  He’s not getting rich.  He spends his days and some nights in a barn that frankly doesn’t smell great.  He knows this tradition will disappear from the region when he stops working.  He’s 68.

The breeding cows are all high in the mountains for the summer, grazing freely on abundant grass.  The grass feeding generates good fats rich in omega-3 acids.  When the weather turns cold enough to freeze the water in the streams, they will walk together down the mountain to the barn.  They know the way.

Few butchers take the time to visit the farm to choose the beasts.  Garcia buys the whole animal and uses it all, making hams, sausages, salami, pâtés, and terrines from hand-chosen pigs.  His choice calf this Friday night (photo) was six months old and already over 600 pounds, gaining over three pounds per day on milk.  On Sunday evening, Faucher will truck the animal to the slaughterhouse and tie it up inside.  Workers arriving on Monday morning will find it, together with a card instructing, “This one is for Garcia.”  Thursday evening the veal will be in JL’s cooler, and Friday a piece will be in my refrigerator.  That’s where meat comes from around here. 

And how did Garcia come to be the guardian of tradition?  When he was growing up in the Pyrenees, on the slopes of the col de Paihères that cyclists know so well, his family grazed their cows on mountain slopes.  No supermarkets up there.  In recent years, when Limoux customers started asking for meat that is chemical- and hormone-free and produced humanely and locally, JL knew exactly where to go. 

Son Jeremy says that some young people do want to live in the traditions he has absorbed since childhood.  Let’s hope.  “Farm-to-table” supply is rarely executed as well as in boucherie Garcia.

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