4307 Upton Ave. S., Minneapolis
A few years ago, I found myself on a typical Minnesota night, cozy between quilt and feather bed, the cat curled in a dimple at my feet, the moonlight a glowing stripe above the curtains, peaceful as a dolly in a box. Except for one of those persistent, annoying little thoughts that sneak in on you sometimes: Just who exactly do you have to kill to get a fresh chicken in this town? Such are the night terrors of restaurant critics.
But really. Why exactly is it that to get great quality local lamb, you have to go to a restaurant, like Lucia's or Sapor? Doesn't it seem that in this rich city ringed by all this farmland, we should be wealthy beyond counting in products of the winter farm?
And yet, walk into almost every grocery store in town and the beef is from Colorado, the lamb is Australian, the chickens are driven in from Indiana. Even our fanciest grocery stores are like this. Especially, ashamedly, our fanciest grocery stores, and even some co-ops, are like this.
And you just know chickens, cows, hogs, and lambs are rambling all over the landscape by the zillion! And you just know our local family farmers are going broke out there selling their carefully raised animals on the commodity market, where their plump happy animals get mixed in with sick factory farm ones, and fetch the same price.
It's ridiculous, and it's been ridiculous for years. Here in the Twin Cities we have a bottomless pool of eager home cooks. Out past the suburbs we have a bottomless pool of family farmers making the tastiest products on earth. And there has been nearly no way for the two to meet. Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to buy!
Which is why when I saw the banner in front of the old Linden Hills butcher shop announcing Clancey's Meats & Fish, I thought the same thing I always think: Is it you? Has someone finally chiseled a door into the treasure chest?
Paint me pink and call me Bubbalicious, Sugar, they sure have.
I walked my little self in there one lazy afternoon, got to chatting with new owner Kristin Tombers, who bought the place last October, and then got to chatting with Greg Westergreen, who got to mentioning that they had just gotten some lamb in from Joe and Bonnie from the Hill and Vale Farm, and if I had a few minutes he'd go in the back and French a rack for me. Now, I never in my life have refused a gentleman offering to French me a rack, and neither has any other sensible Minnesota lass (as proved by the recent failures of the teen abstinence programs), and this was one of the wisest decisions of my life.
When I got home and unwrapped the rack of lamb, with each of the dear little handle-bones cut free and scrubbed clean of any meat or fat (that's a Frenched rack), I felt like I was behind the line in a four-star kitchen. Mere civilians rarely see meat this beautiful. When I cooked it (as simply as possible, just pan-searing it, then gently warming it in a low oven) and dug in, I truly thought I might collapse in joy: The meat was so tender, so good, it was certainly the best lamb I've had in my life. Little chops with a wee black raspberry edge to the meat, a bit of cedar, herbal mist, the kind of food that tricks the deep, core carnivore out of a girl and leaves you wilted in your chair, panting. That's why we needed a local butcher shop!
It turns out that the butcher, Greg Westergreen, is far more than a butcher: He's the former chef from the Nicollet Island Inn, and so anytime you go into the place you're likely to find some of the most high-level gourmet take-out imaginable. One day they had Pekin Duck Wild Rice Soup, an unspeakably rich, velvety concoction of little pearls of curled wild rice swimming through nut-brown luxury. He puts together cold salads made with white beans the size of baby fists, tossed with roasted red peppers and roasted artichokes. Only the top restaurants in the state serve antipasto this good.
Westergreen even managed to impress me with olives--and I am quite jaded with olives, you know. But he took olives beyond themselves: Quail's-egg-sized hondrolias were marinated with slices of garlic and shallots in a sherry vinegar, and were so rich, meaty, and vibrating with flavor that I could only think, yes, such olives do require a butcher! Meanwhile, in a nearby bowl, green, sharp little luques were tossed with angel-hair curls of orange peel and sprigs of fresh thyme. These olives were a salt-and-citrus confetti on the tongue. They had me thinking about sitting by the sea in Sicily, and if I run off with the next Sicilian who crosses my path you'll know who to blame.
Over a series of visits I tried other things from the simple black plates that line Clancey's modest (for now) refrigerated cases: A subtle garlic sausage which cried out for a surrounding cassoulet, but still cut quite a figure when paired with scrambled eggs. A fine, mushroomy, robust, and noble pork tenderloin from Elgin, Minnesota's Hidden Stream Farm. A perfect, Clancey's-made gelatinous veal demi-glacé, so you can cook like a four-star chef without roasting bones all day. A fascinating grass-finished steak from Misty Meadows farm in Pine Island--fascinating because it was bright red, light tasting, and had a sort of musky sweetness to it, like a muskmelon does. It almost reminded me of sushi-grade tuna, not in terms of tasting like fish, but in the sense that the flavor was so light and clean and front-of-the-palate, not the classic rich thunder of beef. Think of the difference between a Beaujolais and a Burgundy. That pure, light taste is because the beef was grass-finished, which means that the cow put on at least its final 200 or 300 pounds living out of doors, eating pasture and hay.
Then I talked to Todd Lein, who works for a farmers' collective called the Southeast Minnesota Food Network, which represents a few dozen family farms located in the fertile lands that lie between us and Iowa, and he explained two interesting new things to me: First, that I'm not the only person who's been driven nuts by the separation between farmer and consumer; and second, that pasture-raised farm animals are the new hot thing for keeping the environment together.
More on that in a minute. For the time being, please know that the University of Minnesota Extension folks, the Land Stewardship folks, and local restaurant visionaries like Lucia Watson at Lucia's have been working for years now on ways to get local farmers' products into our hot little hands, and this is going to start being something you'll see more and more in metro-area grocery stores, including the co-ops, but also the various Kowalskis' and outstate chains like Coborn's.
For my money, one of the creepy things about the way the organic standards have finally played out is that it's been a lot easier for big agribusiness, especially out West, to jump through and finance all the certification hoops. And so in some instances the small, conscientious family farms organic shoppers mean to support are getting lost in a big-money organic game. If you find yourself someday soon confronted with officially organic things from far away versus unofficial local things that adhere to principles similar to the organic standards, I say local is far more important.
For instance, all of the farmers in that Southeast Minnesota Food Network (www.localfoodnetwork.org) are small family farms who don't use drugs or hormones and raise their animals in an environmentally safe way, meaning that the farm isn't creating run-off or pollution problems, the animals aren't crowded or confined to small areas and are given access to the outdoors, and all of the meat is processed in small, local USDA-inspected plants that allow close inspection of the meat and provide more local jobs. These are old fashioned meat processing plants where they process a few animals a day, not thousands, as in factory farms. (If you want a primer on why factory farms are bad, check out www.themeatrix.com.)
But what about this whole grass-finished thing? I have been reading a lot lately about how good it tastes. And when I talked to Lein, who used to work for Land Stewardship, he explained to me that having free-roaming herbivores on the hills and dales is exactly what we need. "Large herbivores, bison and elk, were a huge component in this ecosystem," he says. "There are two ways of managing grass, you can either cut it or burn it. Animals cut it, eat it, and transform it into nourishment for the soil. Their walking causes a disruption in the soil surface, which distributes seed. A crusted soil doesn't allow any seed penetration, their herding behavior works just like tilling."
In addition, animals raised outside are healthier and require fewer vet visits because they spend all day getting exercise and eating salad. Well, ground salad, anyway. "Farmers who go from a confinement situation to pasturing see all of their costs of production go down," explains Lein. "After years of careful study we have discovered that cows have legs. They are in fact capable of feeding themselves and distributing their own manure. You don't have to use energy to bring them their feed and take away their manure."
After years of careful study, at least one local woman has decided we are capable of understanding, and supporting, this difference. Kristin Tombers has a 20-year background in local restaurant kitchens and in fish wholesale, and after looking at the problems for a decade finally decided she'd be the one to do something about it--which is why she opened Clancey's. "Food and what we eat is such an important decision," explains Tombers. "Shopping at Sam's Club or eating at McDonald's versus purchasing something where you know the animals have been treated properly and you can see the families and the land your money is going to help support. I saw [opening Clancey's] as a huge opportunity to put in place some of my community-minded thinking. I got the nastiest letter the first week we opened. This lady wrote to say, 'Did you think you can charge these prices because of the neighborhood you're in?' And being a capitalist is about the farthest thing from my heart, we need to make money to stay open, sure, but it's more important that the idea of supporting local farmers catches on."
And that's why, when you walk in, Tombers or Westergreen will be happy to explain the provenance of each and every piece of meat in the case, and almost every piece comes from a place you've heard of, with a farm family you can call to thank, if you want to.
Imagine it yourself the next time it's a Minnesota night and you're cozy beneath your quilt: What would it be like if up here in town we could eat like kings, and out there, out under the moon there would be no manure lagoons, just farmers who could afford to keep their farms, and lambs who eat hillside salads. And the town and country feed each other, abandoning the previous era of mutual indifference? I'm sure you're all going to write me and tell me I'm naive, but I think there would be at least a few less night terrors, and a little more sleeping like dollies in boxes.
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