A lesson in seam butchering

Meet Kate Hill (left) and the butcher, Dominique Chapolard (right)

I have made no secret for my love of pork. For me, it doesn’t deserve second billing to chicken as the other white meat, it is so much more than that(not that I have anything against chicken). But can I really blame people for that comparison, when supermarket meat cases carry these lean segments of pork loin stripped of all the fat? I guess I should be thankful for America’s love of pork ribs – I love them too and am thankful for the fat left in those – but not as much as I love the flavorful belly of the pig.

Though I’m mostly immune to some groups who are openly vocal about omnivores being some kind of animal killers, I am grateful to them for making me aware of food industry practices around the world.

The thing is, I grew up pretty much where food was farm-to-table.

My hometown province in the Philippines, Benguet, is known as the nation’s “salad bowl” because of its huge production of vegetables. The South China sea and its bounty of fresh fish is but an hour drive and we have a slaughter house right in the heart of the city rumored also to be serving up the fabled aphrodisiac soup #5. The native peasants, who raise ducks and chicken, regularly stop by our restaurant to sell their animals and my dad or grandma would expertly convert these fowls into delicious white-cut chicken, stewed, roast or dried duck.

Yup, I’ve seen my dad or grandma deftly slaughter poultry – slit, scald, de-feather & gut them before my very eyes. You can say I was de-sensitized at a very young age.

This had carried over several years into my living in the United States. I sort of accepted the meat in supermarkets without questioning its sources (I assumed the processing plant wasn’t too far) but I have also wondered about chicken being so tasteless. It’s only in the past six years after starting a food blog that I’ve seen through the food industries’ dirty little secrets and now store shelves are becoming less and less appealing to me.

It’s enough to turn me into a vegetarian…okay…maybe I exaggerate a bit (and I can hear my brothers laughing their heads off). After all, I’m the kid who picked the potato and carrots out of the lamb stew and threw them under the table so I can eat more lamb. Besides, didn’t vegetables get their fair share of bad press with e-coli and salmonella?

Nothing is safe, the price of industrialization is steep.

Big food plants need to be regulated, food handling has become so mechanized, I wouldn’t be surprised if we’ve bleached the flavor out of our food.

Which is why I want to rediscover my roots and, as cliche at that sounds, how things were done in the good old days.

One thing I have not admitted to in this blog was when I went home to the Philippines last year, I took part in the slaughtering of a duck – uhm….it didn’t turn out very well for me and the duck. Even there the old guard is gone. My mom is 82, walking on a cane (she broke her hip 6-months back) impatiently berating the cooks who didn’t know how to handle the poor fowl and I watched in horror as the poor thing struggled as I was traumatized by the scene. And yes, I could not eat the dish that was made from it.

The experience did not deter me from wanting to learn more about how meat was processed, it spurred me more into finding a place that would teach me about this art.

I’ve always wanted to save up enough money to take one of Kate Hill’s culinary programs like the Marché au gras which is a whole week of duck cookery heaven from confit de canard to foie gras.

I’ve also found Duckfest, a culinary program in Claddagh farms. The past workshop was in December which was not a good time for me to take off.

I was also curious about The French Pig. Kate has teamed up with the Chapolard family – a farmer/butcher family that makes sausage, ham and pâtés to introduce French butchery workshops in the United States.

This certainly saves me a plane ticket, though I wouldn’t mind traveling to Gascony.
The workshop was held in Little Washington at the Stonyman Gourmet Farmer this past Sunday. Oooh, if I had not just come back from my Philippine vacation I would have suggested to the hubby to make a weekend of it and dine at the Inn at Little Washington.

Stonyman Gourmet Farmer

We arrived at the Stonyman Gourmet Farmer a little before 9:00 am on a fine sunny morning. The shop was adorable and people were milling around morning coffee and pastries which were made fresh everyday. I had a delicious pear muffin for breakfast and I immediately could tell that these baked goods were in a class of their own.

I was thrilled to finally meet Kate Hill and Dominique Chapolard. Dom asked me if I was a butcher (or I was in the pig trade) and I said, “No, but I love pork so much.” I suddenly had an image of myself with a cleaver hacking through a big side of meat.

I also got to meet Cathy Barrow, also known as Mrs. Wheelbarrow, one of the founders of Charcutepaloozaa year of meat – a group dedicated to the art of charcuterie.

Dom Chapolard started talking about his love for the pig. He runs a full circle farm together with his wife and three brothers. They grow the grains they feed their pigs, slaughter in a cooperative abattoir ( a group of farmers share the cost), butcher the meat on their farm and produce fresh French pork cuts and delectable charcuterie for their town…and apparently they sell out every week.

I never knew that the French were this passionate about pork.

He also said that the farmer loves his pig and the butcher loves his meat. To show respect for this porcine creature, it is important not to waste anything. This starts from the slaughter. Blood is drained and kept for blood sausage. Whatever scraps are gleaned from cleaning the pig is accumulated in a pile to be made into saucisse later. I think when he said that when you terminate the life of a pig, it is not a “Disney feeling” I think he meant that our sadness when the hunter made Bambi motherless – we felt sad for a while and then we forgot about it after the movie ended. For the butcher, it is a weekly ritual of slaughtering the pig, it is a real feeling that has become part of their affinity with the animal which they have raised from birth and nurtured for a year.

Pigs grow very fast from months 1-6, so whatever you feed it becomes apparent in the weight they put on. In the United States, they are slaughtered at 6 months because feeding it longer than that will be very costly. However, the muscle of a pig at that age is mostly water. That’s why when you cook pork chops bought from American supermarkets, it releases a lot of water.

In France, they let the pig mature to a year because the muscle becomes more dense which translates to more flavor.

So after that intro, it’s best to let the pictures tell the story, no?

Dominique Chapolard

The butcher Chapolard has massive forearms. With the exception of sawing through the joints, he used a non-flexible short boning knife for all his seam butchering.The knife he has above is the Victorinox- 5.5603.14.

cochon03 text
leaf lard vs. regular pork fat

He let us feel the difference of the leaf lard which is near the internal organs and the regular fat that is the layer under the skin. The leaf lard is more dense and white and this is perfect for, what else, pie dough!

cochon04 crop

He first took the front hoofs off at the joint.

cochon05 crop

Then worked on the hind legs. If you were making ham, you would leave the hoofs on because you hang the ham by this.

cochon08 crop

Then Dom worked on the back seam to coax out the tenderloin.

The rib seam

In the U.S., the ribs are a prized cut of the pig, in France these are used as soup bones so when seaming, they take the knife closer to the bone to leave more meat on the pork belly. So the ribcage is pulled away from the ventreche (pork belly) very carefully.

Kate tells us that you never hear the butcher say cutting or chopping, it is always “pull away” or to “free”.

Dom adds ” In France, we like to take things apart gently.”


Freeing the rib-cage from the ventreche

After the ribs, you can take out the pork loin which runs along the back.

Dom said the the pig uses his snout a lot and the meat and loin closer to the head is redder because it has more oxygenation from frequent use.

Pork shoulder

If there is one part of the pig a person in the U.S. can practice seam butchering on, it is the pork shoulder. Notice how Dom pushes down on the bone to expose the joint.

Butchers in the U.S frequently waste the coppa,  the part behind the head sitting on top of the pork shoulder. The coppa is frequently turned into ham.


The shoulder taken apart, Dominique replacing the bone to show where it came from.


Finally the pork butt!

I never thought butchering can be done with such zen and finesse. I always had visions of a cleaver hacking down and splintering some bone or raw flesh splattering everywhere. I guess if you work along the “seam” nothing is wasted. All grizzle, extra fat and meat were dutifully collected by Kate to be turned into saucisse later.

Like these ones, the pair from France slipped pass the beagle at the airport.hahaha!


What do I take away from the class? I wouldn’t expect to get me a whole pig to butcher…maybe I’ll start with a pork shoulder. Dom Chapolard said to give value to your farmer, do not short-change him because to produce quality product requires time and money. I hope to be able to shop more at the farmer’s market this season. I shall do more research and might pay a visit to Polyface farms. I’m still looking for the perfect chicken to make Hainanese Chicken rice. 🙂

 Here’s a short video of Dominique working on the pork shoulder:

Seam Butchery from Veron Perez on Vimeo

17 thoughts on “A lesson in seam butchering

  1. Fascinating report, as always! I remember watching with amazement the skill in which Chef Candy at FCI butchered a lamb. We are adding chickens to Restoration Farm this year. I’m not sure if I am up to the “harvesting” but I am certainly up for learning more about the process of raising them, and how the flavor might differ.

  2. Beautiful pictures and descriptions. I attended this class on the west coast and saw Dominique work to free those ribs. I didn’t know that some of what we call pork belly is actuall over the rib cage.

    I also took some pictures, but the lighting was dim. Some of them didn’t come out well while others, the ones that weren’t blurry, had a nice moody quality. Yours are so clear and really show what he was doing.


  3. hahaha.. I can just imagine the sight of you and the duck! I don’t mind eating any animal but I don’t think I could kill one.

  4. Great post! Thanks for linking to Claddagh Farms! You should come up some time for a workshop. This year’s Fall line up includes hands on Duckshop, Porkshop–similar to the Cochon course, except we slaughter & prepare a pig from start to finish, including making several specialty items like Boudin Noir, Fricandeaux, Pate, Saucisse, etc. We will also be holding a Vealshop sometime in the Autumn featuring humanely raised & slaughtered Rosé Veal from our farm.

  5. Thanks, Rosa!
    Thanks T.W.! Oh now, you have to write about the chickens in Restoration farms. I’ll be curious about their flavor too.
    Thanks Brian – this class also helped me figure out which part comes from where better than just looking at a drawing. It’s forever embedded in my brain. 🙂
    Hi Ben – yes, I think I was very pale after my encounter with the duck.It’s really different when the person handling the slaughter is very experienced and quick about it.
    Thanks Podchef! I’ll be checking out your schedule regularly!

  6. Hi Veronica,

    I discovered your blog not too long ago and instantly I became a big fan. Just like you I also hail from the Philipines so your reminiscing of your adventures back home resonates so much to me. I’m what you call intermediate cook/baker and I enjoy your musings a lot ‘cuz I learn a great deal from it. I feel proud that a fellow “kababayan” excels in culinary field. You’re an inspiration to me. Kudos!!!!

  7. Veron, Thanks so much for a lovely report of last Sunday’s workshops and such good clear photos. It was wonderful to meet you and that great group of dedicated pork lovers that came all the way out to Little Washington to meet us and learn from us the French Pig way to butchery and prepare charcuterie. I hope that you do really come to Gascony soon and experience our joie de vie in person!

  8. Thanks, Eugenio!
    Aw, thanks Tissa! It’s great reminiscing!
    Thanks, Kate! We enjoyed the workshop, we certainly learned a lot. Looking forward to visiting you in Gascony!
    Thanks sues! it was fun!

  9. Pingback: I was profoundly moved when the French butcher demonstrated how to break down a pig.

  10. What a GREAT post, Veron. I totally agree, pork does not deserve second billing to chicken as the other white meat. I read somewhere that the pork council agrees also. They are coming out with a new promotional campaign.

    As for that class, kudos to you! You’ve tackled the butchering dilemma with sweet finesse. The images are tastefully shared and your excitement swoons deliciousness.

    Thank you so much for sharing…

  11. Wow this is a wonderful post. Really inspiring! Your description of how things rolled out was really nice. Thank you for sharing it.

  12. This is a great post, thanks for capturing. I will refer back to this page when I get my half pig.

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