By Spencer Cryan
TORONTO – I'm Spencer, a musician and business graduate turned butcher and charcuterie maker. I am also the founder of Pasture Butchery, and I'm writing this, in large part, to announce that my longtime friend and farmer, Jeffrey Linton, has come on as a partner in the business.
Before its time to talk about Pasture Butchery and Jeff’s involvement, it is far more important to first address the question of what we know here at the butchery or our kitchen when we use the term “pasture” and what it means that Linton has teamed up with us.
Pigs, pork, ham, bacon, ribs, sausage, salami or whatever you may think of when mentally conjuring pigs as either animals or food, it's fair to say that pork products, just like the best cheeses and wines are ones that for the longest time have been considered of a higher quality and more appreciable when imported from somewhere in Europe such as Spain, France, or Italy.
It is easy to become a food romantic when you start to read about the giant black Iberic pigs of Southern Spain, that are fed by thicket and field of ancient acorn trees. This specific acorn diet is rich in fatty acids, which in turn give the pigs delicate hams, flecked with sweet fats that flood your taste buds and your senses. Truly this pork is one that conquers the highest end of the market because of that unique diet. At the center of that acorn diet is of course the trees themselves, and just as important are the generations of family who have taken care of them and the pigs, as stewards of the land.
When you start to tell that story, or versions of that story, then you have transcended from being simple hams and salamis that feed the people, into things that can be rich, complex, historied and a true luxury. Well, what I would say about Jeffrey Linton is that he is doing both – he is a man who wants to feed a lot of people with his farming, but he is also doing so with his own way of land management, one that is regenerative to our local wildlife and that compliments my own desires to refurbish a tradition of high-quality whole animal butchery and charcuterie making here in Southern Ontario. Tradition itself often springs from a connection with the literal and figurative land you are doing it on, and to farm and eat in a way that resembles those stories of the old world is more difficult, but more outwardly thoughtful than commercial production.
I first met Jeff and his farm almost 10 years ago. I had recently joined the rank and file of food industry life, coming from years of demanding work getting my business degree in Toronto, while at the same time employed at a small non-profit offshoot of the governments “eco-energy” concern. I had decided to leave the path of office life behind because not only was I irrepressibly obsessed with food, but I had a growing endearment to the stories and the search for the best products available here in Ontario. I was spending an increasing amount of my time whether at work or not, thinking about restaurants, recipes, food, and farms. I was also reading a lot about the culinary classics from overseas and seeing terms like “higher welfare” pork, which was well regarded not only for ethical reasons but taste too. There was something inside of me that immediately recognized that happier, healthier animals would clearly taste better and if I were going to go to all the effort of learning how to make great food, I couldn't really do so without authentic ingredients. When that concept entered my head, it cemented and I knew that I not only wanted to understand the connection between animal welfare and taste, but the economics that connected it all.
We are all somewhat familiar with labeling on our meat products such as, local, grass-fed, antibiotic free, humane, naturally raised, organic and the obvious fluff terms too like “quality” – high or low, everything has a quality, but how can you be certain of which is which? You may expect that if something is stamped as local it must be from a certain distance from where you are buying it? What exactly and who exactly defines when an animal can be called grass-fed? Does naturally raised mean wild? If a steak says “Ontario beef” then surely the cow was raised in the province. The answers of course are not necessarily what you want to hear, and for each one of those examples there is a worthwhile discussion to be had, but that is not the story we are talking about, we are talking about a far more positive one - it is the story of Linton Pasture Pork, which is authentic.
Jeff started his farm in 2009 with six breeding sows (female pigs that are producing litters) on five acres of pasture, producing around 120 pigs per year, in Huron County Ontario, near the great lake it takes its name from. Jeff Linton is not really the type of farmer you can expect to meet at your local Sunday market, and I think it is better to describe him as a person rather than what he looks like. Jeff is durable, brackish, patient with his pigs, and a little less so with people. He is entrepreneurial, a progressive thinker who hates to be told what to do and more direct with the honesty he has learned from living that way. Jeff is also proud without being arrogant and that is reflected in how he talks about his farm, and you would very much see that on a tour of Linton’s pastures. Tour the farm on a sizzling summer day like I have so many times and you may find yourself in a little forest clearing, enjoying some shade, only to look down and see wild strawberries poking out from the grass. Then you will look up and see that you are not the only one basking in the verge, as a variety of different shaped, sized and coloured pigs tumble through the tall grasses, rooting in the brush. It is true Jeff is a pork farmer, but it is just as important to him that he be a soil farmer. Where a lot of small-scale pork farmers will talk about what heritage breeds they have, Jeff is talking about how many varieties of turnip his pigs are eating and what parts of his pastures they are digging in. This connection between what the animal eats, how much movement it gets and what we experience as its taste is more significant than its breed by far. Linton’s pigs can be described as having subtle notes of grass plants in their dark oxygenated muscles, which are at the same time, sweet from the expressive fats, which just like the acorns diet of the Iberic pigs, is purposely high in fatty acids, but derived from grains grown, gathered, and milled from other local farmers near him. Most importantly his pork is something he is constantly improving upon over time, and always different through the stark four seasons in this part of Canada.
Wooly pigs on Linton's Pastures.
Jeff was the first farmer I ever met who made it clear that his product was different because his land is a pasture and as such managed in a way that went at its own speed; what Jeff was doing and what he is still improving upon is called “regenerative agriculture”. Regenerative agriculture is a conservation and rehabilitation approach to growing plants and raising animals. As opposed to commercially used pesticides and fertilizers this type of farming is focused on the natural regeneration of the topsoil, to increase biodiversity, improve the water cycle, which in turn supports native species who help increase the lands resilience to climate change, and strengthens the health and vitality of farm soil. A farmer practicing regenerative agriculture is often growing plants that are beneficial to the soil, but do not necessarily have a market value on their own and that is because the land needs a complex variety of biodiversity and not just cash crops for sale. Any good farmer will tell you that what they really farm, is healthy soil, because that is where responsibly grown, and healthy food comes from. Today Jeff has 120 breeding sows and manages over 400 acres (about half the area of Central Park in New York City), producing 1,500 happy pigs a year.
Simply put, a pasture is a tract of land that animals graze on, but that does not capture the whole picture, clearly. Whether you eat to live or live to eat, we all at this point have a fair understanding of our choices and that those choices have implications. In this case those implications are on our health, on our enjoyment of life, the environment, our status with peers, our bank accounts and on our fundamental image of ourselves. Jeff’s farm was the first one I found in my search for the highest “quality” meat that truthfully measured up and without all the nonsense labels either. It is also the one that made me want to start my own traditions in butchery and charcuterie.
I absolutely love making charcuterie with his pork and especially with his fat. I think to myself, yes, I have had sopressata thousands of times, but I have never known what is in it, so maybe if I make it with Linton’s pasture pork it will be that much better. In my opinion, Jeff's pork is so good, so unique that it is the gateway meat that will lead you into a world you either did not know existed, or thought you were already getting from somewhere else. Yes, it is that good. I am not the only one, some of Jeff’s customers will travel considerable distances to shop for his product and I cannot even count the number of other farmers who have told me of his influence – whether they agree with it, or not.
So that is a lot of high praise for Jeff, and I am sure he will hate it. At the same time, he has started something and he's helped me find a lot of amazing people farming in similar ways and in ways that make me want to explore my own creativity with their work.
Jeff Linton has officially joined Pasture Butchery and is helping us set policy and procurement when it comes to finding those new farms and bringing their stories to you.
Coppa Steaks from Pasture Butchery.
Pasture Butchery is an online shop, providing home delivery across Southern Ontario and curbside pick-up, in Etobicoke. Pasture specializes in whole animal butchery and charcuterie making, made from animals raised on Ontario’s pastured farms who practice regenerative agriculture. Retail & Wholesale.
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