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Dinner Club at Avedano’s Holly Park Meat Market

12/09/09 | by slowfoodsf | Slow Food SF Dinner Club

In many ways, Avedano’s Holly Park Meat Market is a throwback to days gone by. Just the look and feel of the cozy little shop on Cortland Avenue in Bernal Heights invites memories of the past. You’re hardly surprised to learn that the space has been either a butcher shop or market for most of the past century. But it’s not just the rich history and the antique equipment still being used here, it’s their sense of community and commitment to quality that sets them apart.

They buy whole or half animals and break them down themselves-by hand, using only a hand saw, a meat cleaver, and a boning knife-the way it used to be done. It’s not about nostalgia though, it’s to provide better tasting, healthier food. Hand carving allows the butchers to not only produce the most commonly recognized cuts, but also to channel their own creativity, offering a pleasing variety of options to more adventurous cooks. It also allows them to fill special requests. But there’s more.

The vast majority of meat consumed today is raised on commercial feedlots where animals are overcrowded and fattened quickly on an unhealthy diet. The feed is then supplemented by large doses of antibiotics and other chemicals to combat inevitable disease. After processing, the carcasses are quickly broken down in large facilities, vacuum sealed, and then shipped across the country. Sealing the meat in plastic for easy shipping is commonly referred to as “wet aging.” This clever terminology, a reference to “dry aging,” is intended to fool consumers into believing the process enhances the meat. It doesn’t.

Dry aging is the process of hanging the carcass from a meat hook and allowing it to air dry in a controlled climate for around two to three weeks. Hanging allows the muscles to relax and the meat to tenderize naturally. In addition, the meat steadily loses moisture (up to 20% of its original weight). Similar to a reduced sauce, this loss of moisture enhances the flavor of the meat.

In the case of the less venerable wet aging, the moisture is contained inside the plastic. Since meat is sold by the pound, avoiding this weight loss prevents money loss (one reason dry aged meat will inevitably cost more). What it does lose is flavor. Where dry aging improves the taste of meat, wet aging does the opposite. Like any other foods in your refrigerator or freezer, the longer meat sits around in plastic, the more the flavor is compromised.

Top quality meat-like the kind you find at Avedano’s-begins with humanely raised animals that are provided ample space to roam, eat naturally, and grow at a normal rate without the use of antibiotics, hormones, or other dietary supplements. Handling methods are chosen to maximize flavor rather than profit. Ultimately, this meat will cost more than the conventional alternative, however, it will not only taste considerably better, it’s also dramatically better for the animals, the environments, and for the health of the consumers. Balancing these benefits against market rates while taking into account the subsidies that supply the unhealthy feed on feedlots, the true cost of meat is often obscured.

On Sunday morning, December 6th, a group of sixteen Slow Food members were treated to a personal tour of this forward-thinking shop, so steeped in history. We gathered in the work area with an assortment of cutting tools dangling nearby. As co-owner Melanie Eisemann explained her store’s mission and practices, veteran butcher David Budworth (well known around town and on-line as Dave the Butcher) skilfully broke a lamb joint down into chateaubriand and other smaller but equally eye catching cuts. Together they talked and taught, told stories, answered questions, laughed, and imparted the love of what they’re doing.

And this love isn’t just about meat. The market is proud to offer outstanding sustainable seafood, delicious prepared foods, dairy, produce and other grocery items (many from terrific small local producers and even a few imported specialties). They also cater private parties and even offer butchery and other classes, taught by knowledgeable pros including the engaging “Dave-the” himself.

People living nearby feel lucky to have them in the neighborhood, but Avedano’s is well worth the trip even for those who live further away. Make an afternoon of it-discover the friendly neighborhood of Bernal Heights and the pleasures of Avedano’s Holly Park Meat Market.

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