There is nothing quite like a hunting expedition to get one back to nature and thinking about the food production cycle. Here in the so-called (but fondly labeled) granola-like People's Republic of Texas community that is Austin, which I love, there is not much talk of hunting in my neck of these woods. There has been as part of recent gun control debates, yes, and it is here in this climate that it just never came up for me to mention that my son shot his first deer over Thanksgiving - a nice 8-point buck. I get the sense that talking about such things around here might be a little inappropriate politically, so I said nothing about it until recently. (As he also was the only one in our group to catch a fish on the family fishing expedition in Galveston over the summer, which fish we thoroughly enjoyed for dinner soon thereafter, I am thinking I want him on my team when it comes to some outdoor survival situation.)
Truth to tell though, I grew up around all this. Grew up hearing about deer leases and quail and dove hunts. Grew up seeing the freezer full of plastic bags with tiny little birds (quail). Hunting - and guns - were all part of this. When I lived in France in that idyllic Junior Year in France time, my host family in the pre-Paris phase, in Tours, took me out with them to their country home. Out around all the hunting dogs. And around all the guys setting out on foot with their hunting rifles. Or whatever they were. All I remember are the adorable dogs, dozens of them, and being relegated to a small bicycle to keep up that had my knees up into my chest.
In terms of sustainability and organic local food, getting out and hunting or fishing is as basic and primal as you get. The deer? All being processed into prime cuts such as backstrap, as well as jalapeno cheddar sausage, and also mounted (European style). No waste.
We do not think too often of where our food comes from. Out in the countryside, catching and hunting your own food, you get a bigger picture of the food cycle and how we end up with the food we enjoy so well in our favorite restaurants. Though the world is sharply divided into what items are appropriate for human consumption--meat/no meat; dairy/no dairy--it would probably surprise many to know that, at least from my limited experience with this hunting world, there is considerable respect and even love for the land and its bounty.
Which brings us to another love for the bounty of the land, of a different sort. This brings us to artisanal butchering in Paris and Hugo Desnoyer. Hugo's butcher shop in the 14th arrondissement of Paris is right next to the well-respected Jeu de Quilles restaurant. Friends dining at Jeu de Quilles recently, who apparently told Hugo (who had stopped by the restaurant to visit with his colleagues, the owner/staff of Jeu de Quilles) of a certain American foodie friend who was a little starstruck when she met him back in February 2012, scored a copy of Hugo's book. (He is after all, said to be by some the best butcher in Paris, if not in all of France.)
Hugo even signed the book. The inscription reads (per my rough translation): "To Lisette (what my friends and certain French persons call me in France), hoping that this little work gives you a better image of our wonderul metier (profession)! [something I can't read/translate well] Merci la vie! Hugo D--
I did not know what to expect. I recently read it. I get it now.
For any great artist--be it a chef, a painter, a baker, a candlestick maker--there has got to be an almost incomprehensible to others passion for the subject matter. And so it is for Hugo. I get that he is passionate about the subject matter of the butcher's work: the animal, the animal's happiness in its life, its comfort at the time of slaughter, the poetry of just the right cut of the meat to bring out the best of the animal, and the optimal cooking of it to respect the purity of a perfectly raised, slaughtered, and aged piece of meat.
Hugo's view of meat, the animal, the right treatment and the right cut does not purport to engage in the sometimes rabid debate about meat and no meat. He quotes a former President of the National Cancer Institute of France as contrapoint to others decrying the consumption of meat for health reasons: "In eating meat, think to verifying the meat's origins, choose French meat fed naturally. Do not overcook it." He eschews the debate and does not purport to take sides. He wrote the book instead just to communicate "la passion de ma vie : celle pour la viande - cet univers gore, puissant, sexy et puissamment vivant. Bousculant tant, c'est mon metier de boucher. Et vous verrez : la viande, ce n'est pas l'ennemie." Hugo, p. 12 (very rough translation: ...the passion of my life - for meat - this universe of gore, this powerul, sexy, and powerfully alive universe. So disruptive/upsetting this my metier of butcher. And you will see : meat, it is not the enemy.")
In the book we learn that Hugo was rather non-conformist. Not all that great at school. Kept getting into trouble. He left at the age of 15. He went out into the world from his small town of 739 inhabitants, to Paris, to learn his craft from the ground up. He was disgusted at the slipshod nonchalance and deficient work ethic at Paris butcher shops at which he was apprenticed.
Now he can practice his art, his metier, his way. He writes that he spends two hours a day with his guys (les gars) preparing his shop window to make it look its very best. He takes considerable pleasure in wrapping up the meat, for the most pleasing presentation for his customer. He enjoys thinking about his work being extended into its next life, in the kitchens of his customers, once the carefully-wrapped package of meat leaves his shop.
He cultivates close relationships with farmers. He learns which ones care for the animals and ensure their happy, stress-free lives. He visits the farms to keep an eye on the operations to make sure they live up to the standards he requires to care for the animals.
He even has a philsophy and instructions for the moment of slaughter. Hard to imagine this moment. If I saw it, I am sure I would never eat meat again. But we eat meat all the time, those of us who do, and we live in the denial of that reality. For Hugo, this moment is critical to exercising his craft in the way that has made him so renowned and sought after for the final product. The animal must not be stressed at the moment of slaughter. (p. 44) It must be completely comfortable. To help with the de-stressing, Hugo asks the small number of hand-picked slaughterhouses with which he works to play classical music at this critical moment. Any stress in the animal -- the meat quality suffers. He avoids the quick money in selling the meat immediately. For him, there must be a wait to secure the optimal quality. Money sacrificed for quality: the essence of a locavore movement and slow food.
All of the extra steps he demands to respect the animal and the meat add up to limited volume: the additional time he takes before he can sell the meat, the limited quantites of meat to begin with given the rigors of how the animals must be cared for : all this severely constrains the volume of business. Truly the essence of what we know as artisanal, and are beginning to take note of in the US -- even for butchers.
Some of the same principles that inform Hugo's craft are found in this trend in US artisanal butchers. Such as a vegan who sought a way to ethically get meat back into her diet (besides bacon, which was her gastronomic slippery slope into eating meat) and ended up being a "game changer" for "well-raised meat" in the meat production world.
My son keeps asking me when the meat from his first deer will arrive. Soon, I say, reluctantly, as I wonder how on earth I will cook all this. I will never tell my son that this outdoor experience of food production--the hunting and the eating--is more than a little French and rather foodie-esque. I am subtly working on the foodie side of him. But the next time I am in Paris, enjoying Hugo's melt-in-your mouth charcuterie at Jeu de Quilles, I'll have that picture of the son with his 8-point buck handy. Will help give me a little street cred. And maybe get me a nice recipe for that venison tenderloin.