Gone Whole Hog
IT’S A ROUTINE FRIDAY MORNING, AND Ben Thompson has already been up to his elbows in pork for three hours. Thompson, the chef-butcher-owner of the Rock Barn, Nelson County’s renowned custom pork butchery, is about to break down the cross-sectioned hog that presently dangles on a meat hook just behind his work table.
It’s hard not to be captivated by this fleshy swine and its illogical beauty. Its meat is a spectacular crimson in spots, more pinkish in others, with snowy swirls and speckles throughout and a girdle of thick, creamy white that defines the perimeter.
Thompson’s four-man crew has also long been at it this morning, transforming odd bits, good bits, all sorts of bits, into the 17 sausages on the docket. This week alone, they’ve already processed 16 pigs, on their way to making about 50 different types of pork products, many of which have been custom designed for local chefs and their restaurant menus.
First up today are the breakfast links, which include shoulder and leg parts that have already been ground and mixed with sage, ginger, and white pepper. Presently, the meat is being extruded into natural casings, then wended back and forth on a large metal tray, each row tucked closely to the next.
Butchery is complicated stuff, but it’s abundantly clear that these guys know what they’re doing. It’s also clear that the old saw warning against watching sausage being made doesn’t apply at the Rock Barn. In fact, witnessing this process is thoroughly enlightening, exciting even.
Put on a blindfold, and you’d never know you’re in a facility that handles animals. Notably missing is the miasma of a giant factory operation. There’s no odor here in large part because of the way the animals are raised, and also because this meat is so fresh. The non-GMO heritage-cross hog (Berkshire dominant) today is from Timbercreek Farm in Charlottesville—Rock Barn’s primary source, although it does buy from other farmers—and was slaughtered just a couple of days ago at Joel Salatin–owned T&E Meats in Harrisonburg.
The only discernible scent right now is coming from the smoker just down the hall. And boy, does it smell good. It’s a porchetta (or as Thompson affectionately calls it, a “redneck belly roll”)—a skin-on piece of still-connected loin and belly that is spread with onion, garlic, pepper, thyme, fennel, and orange peel, rolled up into itself, and then sent to the smoker to bathe in burning hickory for a dazzling 12 hours. It’s the Rock Barn’s pork equivalent of the Turducken—something that would wow a crowd first by sight, then by taste. Lucky for us, it’s going to be lunch in just a short while.
But first there’s work to be done. Thompson uses a band saw to remove the shoulder from the 125-pound half hog. To the untrained eye, it looks like a tangle of muscle, fat, ligaments, and bone held together by an envelope of light-brown skin. But for someone with Thompson’s knowledge of pig arcana, it has a predictable topography and structure, and navigating it to extract the most in-demand (and unusual) cuts of meat comes easy.
The guiding premise is that a respectful butcher finds uses for the entire pig. Craft is a favorite word of Thompson’s, his father being a woodworker. Respect for the materials, for the art, is paramount. And using every part of the animal is a keystone of that philosophy.
Thompson readies for the task, slipping a Kevlar glove onto his non-cutting hand, just in case the keen blade goes wayward. “I haven’t cut myself in three weeks,” he says.
“Bullshit!” calls out one of the guys who’s busily arranging sausages, looking up to see if his razzing will elicit a reaction from the boss.
“Well, it is rare to go a week without one of us cutting ourselves,” Thompson admits with a grin, as he goes about beginning to break down the animal.
“I'M A CHEF BY TRADE, but a butcher by passion,” says Thompson, who attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, as well as completing kitchen stints at Thomas Keller’s three-Michelin-star Per Se in Manhattan and then Keller’s flagship Napa restaurant, the French Laundry.
Thompson gained much of his knowledge of butchery during those formative restaurant years, but his expertise was really honed during a six-month apprenticeship with the late Richard Bean of Double H farm, also in Nelson County, before launching the Rock Barn in 2009.
Like Double H, the Rock Barn has amassed quite a local following. There’s often a crowd at Thompson’s booths at the Charlottesville and Nelson County farmers’ markets. And he’s also gaining cred on a national level, having been named a Rising Star Artisan for the D.C. area by StarChefs.com.
Right now, Thompson deftly works his Victorinox to extract the tenderloin. “I’m a fan of inexpensive, well-maintained knives,” he says, rubbing his blade along a steel to realign the edge, readying it for the next cut.
What he decides to tackle next is determined by a thoughtful mix of pragmatism and devotion to the craft. His is a hybrid of two styles: The European approach, which follows the seams of the animal’s muscles—a more time-consuming method that’s not only popular in France, Italy, and Spain, but also in smaller U.S. butcheries. It yields the European primal cuts, which are different than American primal cuts (let’s just say there ain’t no picnic ham in France).
The USDA (or American) method involves cutting across bone and muscle groups. It’s favored by big slaughterhouses because of its efficiency and affordability.
“We do a hybrid of these two styles to produce cuts that are not always available with current methods,” Thompson explains, carefully sliding his knife horizontally to remove the skin from a bottom round, as if lifting a piece of paper from a stack. “It’s not more efficient, but that’s our mission—to do beautiful food. We don’t have the volume of a big company, so the ability to do this is what allows us to help our farmers stay in business.
“We’re not fanatics,” he adds, “but we do like to introduce new cuts that may not be all that familiar.”
Indeed, chances are most people have little experience with pork skirts (harvested from the belly), which recently appeared in one of the Rock Barn’s “Porkshares,” an $80 box of various fresh cuts, sausages, and smoked meats that changes each month. In December, for instance, there were bone-in rib chops, breakfast sausage (uncased and as links), Cajun tasso, smoked ham hocks, and “pig pastrami” (which is brined and smoked).
But the world of butchery is not all about the meat. It’s also about the fat. Thompson slices a thin sheet of leaf fat from the cavity and holds it out for inspection. “See, this is smooth,” he says, pressing it between his fingers to demonstrate how even minimal pressure will make it practically disappear. “That’s what makes it so good as lard, but not in sausages.”
To further make his point, Thompson slices some fat from just under the skin, and repeats his demo, pressing on it to compare. This one is decidedly firmer, and that makes it an ideal counterpoint for the lean in sausages.
“Being a chef as well as a butcher gives me a perspective that I think is useful,” Thompson says, moving on to remove the chops, starting at the fifth rib. “I have experience with the end result, so I design dishes from here.”
IT'S A SHORT RIDE in Thompson’s pickup truck from the processing facility to his house a half-mile away. The porchetta takes up much of the backseat, filling the cab with a porky herbaceousness so intoxicating, it could probably make a guy hungry even if he’d just eaten an entire cow.
Already at the house is Thompson’s wife Reagan, a nurse practitioner at UVA Primary Care Center. She’s expecting their second child in March (daughter Elena is 2 years old). But today, she’s expecting just…lunch.
Thompson makes a beeline for the light-filled kitchen, quickly switching into chef mode, and gets to work on the side dishes that will accompany the porchetta. He pulls out a cast-iron pan and fries up some diced streak o’ lean (which was dubbed “Man Bacon” by some regular Rock Barn customers a few years back).
Wielding a paring knife to peel the butternut squash he roasted this morning, Thompson’s work looks remarkably similar to what it was just a half hour ago: blade sliding under skin. It appears that in Thompson’s hands, skin is skin—vegetable or swine.
He begins to mash the orange flesh, and the conversation turns to the Lockn’ Festival, held less than a mile away, and for which Thompson is the food and beverage director. “In a strange way, it uses a lot of my skill set,” he says, pulling out his phone to offer a last-minute lunch invite to the rest of the Rock Barn staff. “It’s similar to restaurants in that you have a space and have to create an experience centered around food.”
By now, the streak o’ lean has become crispy, and Thompson drains off all but a couple of tablespoons of fat. Into the pan goes the broccoli rabe with a sizzle, the mound of green slowly shrinking as it cooks.
Meanwhile, he positions the pièce de résistance—the porchetta—on a wooden board, and it’s time to slice. “If I had a deep fryer, this skin would be instant cracklins,” Thompson says, as a wall of steam released by his blade drifts upward. With the inside of the roll exposed, it’s even more remarkable: the green herb mixture, surrounded by different sizes and colors of meat. The dark pink is pork belly; the light pink is loin.
“Reagan and I aren’t usually ‘center-of-the-plate’ meat eaters,” Thompson says. “We use streak o’ lean and tasso as ‘accent’ meats. It’s a way we can afford to eat locally, using just a few ounces per person.” For instance, they might sauté some Rock Barn sausage, and then cook up vegetables from the garden in the rendered fat. Or maybe a grilled-bread salad with andouille, or butternut squash soup garnished with crispy capicola. “This way of eating lets us get more vegetables, without shaming bacon. There’s no reason to shame bacon.”
Indeed, bacon is often regarded as the ne plus ultra of pork products, but today’s porchetta has made a convincing case to reconsider. It’s tender and sweet, and practically melts on the tongue, especially with a forkful that includes some of Thompson’s decadent white barbecue sauce—made with cultured cream, vinegar from Virginia Vinegar Works, honey from Hungry Hill, herbs, and shallots.
With such skill on display, it’s easy to conclude that Thompson may miss being a chef sometimes. But there’s a passion for what he does now that more than compensates. “The craft of butchery is rediscovering its roots,” he says. “And as more chefs become whole-animal focused, there is going to be more demand for butchering that is tailored to the menu, rather than the menu being limited by the butcher.”