My grandmother shopped at the poultry market on Main Street in Indiana Harbor, selecting the live chickens she thought would be a tasty meal that night. The butcher took them in the back and did whatever had to be done before returning with the packaged meat.
By the time I was a little girl, there were no longer live chickens at the shop, everything came already processed and after we ordered the parts we wanted, wrapped in white paper tied with twine. I knew little about butchering beyond the stories I was told.
And so when Matt Pietsch, executive chef at Salt of the Earth, a farm to table restaurant in Fennville, Michigan that’s been getting lots of buzz, invited me to a visit his kitchen on the day he would be butchering freshly processed two Berkshire pigs he’d gotten from Coach Stop Farms in nearby Zeeland, I grabbed my notebook and camera and headed north. When I arrived, a little late as usual, there were four men including Pietsch with pork splitters, saws and very sharp knives removing the heads and pig tails from two smallish pigs.
Originally 180 pounds, when dressed out – they now weighed 120 pounds, Darrell VandeHoef, owner of Coach Stop Farm, told me as he and Pietsch removed the skin in long sheets. Later that day the skins would be cut into perfect squares, poached in a spiced cooking broth and served at the restaurant with tart cherries. Pietsch would turn the heads, already on a rack, into head cheese – a type of cold cut often spiced with black pepper.
Parts of the pigs being are destined to be part of a beer dinner planned by Pietsch and Fred Bueltmann, co-owner of New Holland Brewery Company in Holland, Michigan, Bueltmann’s involvement goes beyond the pairings of his artisan beers with the different courses. He too is helping to carve the pork.
“What scares me,” he says as we talk about the commercialization of food and how many – make that most of us – aren’t connected to where our food actually comes from, “is that nobody cooks anymore.”
Bueltmann, also known as the Beervangelist, recently won the Michigan Beer Guild’s “Tom Burns Award” recognizing “The Pioneering Spirit of the Great Beer State.”
Pietsch, who is originally from this area, upped his cooking skills including charcuterie under the tutelage of famed restaurateur Michael Symon at Roast, an award winning restaurant in Detroit. Before that Pietsch managed Opus One’s corporate food service in Dearborn, Michigan and also served an apprenticeship with the U.S. National Pastry Team, competing in Germany.
“When I worked at Roast, we used to roast a whole animal every day,” says Pietsch. Indeed, Symon is such a meat lover that his latest cookbook has a one word title, “Carnivore.”
A food purist like Pietsch, VandeHoef uses mighty Percherons for what he calls “draft horse power” on the farm, eschews chemicals for weed or insect control. Instead their pastures, grain crops and hay are managed in other ways including planting cover crops to feed the soil so that the animals are naturally raised.
“Darrell and Connie have been raising Berkshire hogs for us since 2010,” says Pietsch, noting that they’ve broken down more than 50 of them in SOTE’s kitchen.”
Other collaborative dinners with New Holland beers, VandeHoef’s pork and Pietsch’s cooking have including their Harvest meals wiih menu offerings like included Eaters Guild organic free range fried chicken with sage, orange and locally grown braised greens paired with Farmhouse Hatter IPA, Smoke- Roasted Berkshire porchetta made with Coach Stop Farms pasture raised pork, garlic oregano sausage and braised apple hash paired with Charkoota Rye Smoked Dopplebock ending with a dessert of oven roasted Cranes (an orchard just down the road from SOTE) Honey Crisp Apple stuffed with organic grains, Michigan honey and Salt of the Earth butter brioche paired with 2008 Black Tulip Trippel Ale.
Pietsch also makes sausages such as cateccino, a type of Italian sausage that Pietsch serves with lentils on New Year’s Eve as the legume is said to bring wealth and the pork sustenance. Showing off a prosciutto ham he’s been curing for over a year, Pietsch notes that the hams cut today will be hung up to age, replacing the cured ones which start off raw at about 14 pounds and through the curing and aging process now weigh about eight pounds. In the winter his pork dishes are often accompanied by vegetables from his garden that he pickles and cans.
“A little farm like me loves guys like these,” says VandeHoef, gesturing to Bueltmann and Pietsch, “because it gives me some place to sell my meat.”
Pietsch, who also busy Coach Stop Farm’s chickens and lamb, is quick to respond.
“It goes the other way too,” he says. “Without guys like Darrell and local farmers, I wouldn’t have a restaurant like this and I wouldn’t be cooking because this is what I love and this is the way I cook.”
Salt of the Earth’s Cider Braised Pork Roast
6 to 8 pound Boston butt or pork shoulder roast
3 carrots, diced
3 stalks celery, diced
3 large yellow onions, diced
2 turnips, diced
1 rutabaga, diced
1 quart chicken or pork stock
2 bottles favorite hard cider
Canola or peanut oil, as needed
Salt and pepper, as needed
Place a heavy bottomed braising pan, or Dutch oven on medium to high heat. Allow to heat up. Season pork roast well – feel free to cut roast into smaller portion sizes. Once seasoned on all sides, dredge in flour to coat.
Add enough oil to braising pan to coat the bottom. Gently place roast into pan and sear well on all sides. Be sure not to burn the flour on roast. Remove roast from pan and set aside.
Ensure that all vegetables are cut into consistent sizes. For a whole roast, cut the vegetables slightly larger. For smaller cuts, cut the vegetables slightly smaller. Introduce vegetables into hot braising pan and sauté lightly until some of the moisture of the vegetables have evaporated and a bit of color is seen on the veggies.
Place roast in braising pan over the vegetables. Add the chicken stock and the cider to cover roast. Place braising pan over heat and bring up to simmer. Cover with foil or lid and place into 350 F degree oven. Roast will take up to 3-4 hours to cook through. Smaller cuts will take less time 1.5 – 2 hours. To test doneness, insert fork into pork shoulder and twist. The pork should fall apart with the fork.
Ideally pork should cool in braising liquid. If serving immediately, remove pork from pan and strain the liquid into a medium sized sauce pot. Reduce sauce until slightly thickened. Season well with salt and pepper and a bit more cider to season if necessary.
Salt of the Earth is at 114 E. Main St. in Fennville. Call (269) 561-7258; www.saltoftheearthfennville.com.