Ask An Expert: The Healthy Butcher
words by Christopher Metler
Are you in the business of being a carnivore? Toronto is home to some of the best butcher shops in the country, all of which have elevated methods to providing the best quality meats you can sink your teeth into. In the first instalment of our inaugural “Ask An Expert” series, Mario Fiorucci, of Toronto’s The Healthy Butcher, offers a true farm to table exploration of all things meat.
What's the difference between meat markets, then and now?
Real butchers. Up until 40 years ago, all butcher shops would buy meat ‘on the rail’, meaning whole animals, where they would then be cut up at the butcher shop. The industry then moved to a highly centralized process to gain efficiency, and so today most meat is purchased in boxes. Buying boxed meat isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the problem is that shops carry mainly prime cuts. They don’t offer, and even worse, don’t understand the multitude of other cuts that provide amazing flavour and value. That knowledge is what makes a butcher shop a valuable part of our food system.
What’s the most common question that you get from customers?
I would say eight out of ten questions, people ask about how the animal was raised in one way or another. Some will wonder, “Is that organic?” Others ask, “Is that free range?” The list goes on of terms used in the industry: naturally raised, farm raised, grass-fed, antibiotic free, growth hormone free, etc. I believe today that confusion is at an all-time high amongst consumers. People don’t know who to trust.
Do meats trend? What’s hot?
Absolutely. Today, the most popular term is “grass-fed”. That is an entire world of confusion on its own. Every beef cow on the planet is fed grass. The difference is whether the beef is finished. That is, if the cow’s diet is supplemented with grains or corn. The health profile of the resulting meat changes drastically when a beef cow is fed corn or grains, as those are not part of its natural diet. When we label something as grass-fed, it is 100% grass-fed. But you can go into virtually every grocery store and butcher shop in the country today and see the term “grass-fed” on a package of beef. It’s very deceptive marketing.
Is there a best type of cut for steaks?
No, the answer is subjective. Every cut provides a different experience of flavour, texture and tenderness. If all you’re looking for is tenderness, then the Tenderloin is your best bet—but it also happens to be the least flavourful muscle in the entire animal. Personally, I’m a big fan of our Vacio (also known as Bavette), Clodhammer and Flat Iron steaks. Amazing flavour.
Are exotic requests frequent at the shop?
All the time - hearts, lungs, necks, tongues. You name it, we bring it in. Since the BSE (Mad Cow Disease), sourcing sweetbreads is next to impossible, but most offals can be offered. I love that people are experimenting and learning from all the culinary shows and books out there.
Do you consider being a butcher similar to being a connoisseur of wine?
Absolutely. A meat connoisseur should know about the farm, the animals, the breeds, their feed, the slaughterhouse, how it was aged and how to cut it. That’s a lot of information that’s accumulated over many years in the industry.
Can you explain marbling and its benefits?
Marbling is the intramuscular fat found in meat, which plays several roles. First, it improves tenderness by acting as a lubricant between meat fibers, making them easier to pull apart. Second, fat carries most of the flavour compounds. And third, fat stimulates the flow of saliva, which has the effect of further increasing tenderness. Needless to say, we are fans of fat.
Tell us something about meat that we might not already know.
Sourcing great meat is not easy, there are many factors at play. I just wish more people would not be shy to ask questions wherever they go—ask about where the animals are from, how they were raised, what they ate, and even how they were killed. The best way to improve our food system is to vote with your dollars.