It's a Long Way to the Top

I find it funny how many Italians can’t speak English, but if you throw on some bass-driving AC/DC songs, they can sing every word to perfection. So my first two days at the Celle (Dario's meat lab) we rocked to Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap and Highway to Hell instead of That’s Amore. Truth be, I don’t care what’s on the playlist – whether it be Dino or Angus Young.  I am in Panzano, Italy, home of Dario Cecchini, one of the most famous butchers in the world and all I want to do is suck the marrow from the bone. I want to learn everything. I know it sounds crazy, but I do. It’s all part of this culinary adventure I’m on – to travel the world, stage with the best butchers and learn all I can from them.

In New York, I worked with great instructors and we processed a lot of lamb – something you don’t really find back home in Texas. Then in the French countryside, I learned traditional French charcuterie and came away with new found knowledge of pate de tete, or headcheese, blood sausage, and Noir de Jambon. Now in Italy, I am learning the ways of the master. I am learning Dario Cecchini's method of butchery.

So on my second day at Celle, I was finally given the opportunity to pull out my knives and get to work. We suited up to You Shook Me All Night Long and then Jadava slid me a shank from across the table and told me to debone it. Back in New York, shank meat was simply removed from the bone and set aside to grind into hamburger. There really wasn’t a specific method to deboning shanks – just get as much meat off the bone as possible. And so I did. I split the two main muscles off the shank like I had done so many times before. And then,

Que Catzo?!

I heard Jadava boom from across the table. He hurried around the butcher block towards me, apologizing for not being more specific.

No, no! Maestro Dario makes steak out of shank muscles. See, like this. Capisci?

Si, si. Dario wanted everything taken off in one smooth piece. Jadava explained that when he first started, he cut shanks for four months before Dario ever let him touch another cut of meat. He said if Dario wasn’t happy with your work, you were gone. It was Dario’s way or the highway. He deboned another shank to demonstrate and then I got back to work. This time, with much more precision and attention to detail. Now I was cutting a steak – not making hamburger.

All that day I was the ‘shank man’. Every shank that came through the processing room was mine. I was ecstatic to be back cutting meat and silently smiled to myself when next on the playlist was, It’s a Long Way to the Top.

Yes, indeed it is.

Breaking Lamb

In case you didn’t know, for the past two months I’ve been apprenticing at Fleishers Craft Butchery in Red Hook, Brooklyn.  Fleishers is the best when it comes to craft butchery and locally sourced, sustainable meats. Over the course of my training, I have learned to break down whole carcass' of pigs, lambs, cattle, and poultry into their primal cuts.

Definition: A primal cut is a piece of meat, usually a muscle group, that is initially separated from the carcass in the butchery process.

There is obviously more division taking place after this initial cut, but primals are the building blocks for butchers. I'd like to share a bit of what goes into breaking down a lamb to a primal cut.

There are four main primal cuts to a lamb. Yeah, I’m sure you can find a chart on Google illustrating 15 different primals and 30 different sub-primals, but let's keep it simple with these basics:

  1. shoulder primal
  2. rib primal
  3. loin primal
  4. leg primal
The lamb shoulder primal

The lamb shoulder primal

Lamb Rib primal

Lamb Rib primal

Lamb loin primal

Lamb loin primal

Lamb leg primal

Lamb leg primal

After I’m done with a lamb, it looks a little like this...

A full lamb broken down

A full lamb broken down

Oh, you see that handsaw?

Yeah, we learn the craft by doing everything old school and that includes a handsaw and muscle. As you can see in the above photo, I’ve broken this lamb carcass down into the four primals plus some extra cuts. I've also taken off the neck, fore-shanks (front legs), hind-shanks (back legs), and the spareribs.

Hopefully, you are still reading this and your head isn’t buried in a trashcan. If it is, have fun eating broccoli and carrots forever. However, if you’re dying to know more… I strapped a GoPro to my cap so you can get a bird's eye view in my Breaking Lamb video.

Check it out here.