hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires




A butcher shop for local meats

Berkshires store becomes retailer for area farms



Contributing writer

As the dinner hour approached on a recent Thursday evening, the foot traffic at The Meat Market began to increase.

Some customers milled about at the front of the store, peering into glass cases for a closer look at the goods: tasso ham, a loin of roast beef with a rosy pink center, and a fat-marbled roll of pancetta.

Others lined up at the cash register to pay for fried chicken dinners. They were given tickets and told to head out to the back of the building, where flour-dusted chicken thighs and breasts floated like sizzling orbs in two cast-iron cauldrons over a wood flame.

The menu for the evening was as simple as it was succulent: locally sourced chicken, brined in buttermilk and dredged in flour, then fried to a golden hue in hot lard -- also sourced from nearby farms. At the makeshift buffet table, plates were arranged for eager customers: two pieces of glistening chicken, a paper cone of hand-cut French fries and a side of mint-tinged tomato-watermelon salad.

“This is like food you cook at home, cooked by someone who knows fried chicken,” said Justin Torrico of Community Co-Op Farms in Mount Washington.

Torrico makes the journey to Great Barrington every week because he loves The Meat Market’s food -- and its practices. The market, which opened a little over a year ago, is a first for the region: a butcher shop dedicated to locally raised meats.

“As small farms grow again, we have to find ways to make it work,” Torrico said “And this is one of the few places that does -- at a fair price to the farmers and with a diversity of products."

Most weeks, The Meat Market’s fried chicken night is a sellout, said Jake Levin, the market’s manager and head butcher.

“We decided it would be a good way to showcase some of our products,” he said. “We have a large outdoor seating area, and indoors we seat about 25. People have really responded to it. You can’t get fried chicken like this anywhere else around here.”

Levin said the fried chicken nights will continue until the weather gets too cold. The shop will also offer a series of “Sunday suppers” in October.

“It’ll be a big mid-afternoon meal, from 3 to 7, and have lots of country cooking on the menu,” he explained.

Valuing humane treatment

The Meat Market’s owner, Jeremy Stanton, set out to create a central location in the southern Berkshires where consumers could buy meats and poultry from area farms. The result is a butcher shop that meets U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations for selling fresh meat.

Levin explained that although many farms sell their meats directly to the public, USDA regulations require that meat sold at farms must be frozen.

Stanton’s goal from the outset was to sell only fresh meat from livestock raised in the Berkshires – animals that have plenty of access to grass and are fed only a modest quantity of grain.

“It’s also important that the animals be treated well and live good lives,” Levin added.

In addition to having high standards for the meat it sells, Levin said The Meat Market is careful about which slaughterhouses handle the animals.

“How the animals are treated is a huge part of it for us,” he said. “We visit every single farm we buy animals from, and we’re very picky about which slaughterhouses we deal with. Some in the area we stay away from, because we don't feel they’re as careful.”

One of the store’s goals, he added, it to have all facilities certified humane by the Animal Welfare Approved program, which is run by the national Animal Welfare Institute.

“We don’t believe in a huge amount of third-party certifications, but Animal Welfare, in my experience, is one that does mean something,” Levin said.

He explained that the AWA certification rules are fairly stringent and are made to ensure the animals are as calm as possible before they’re slaughtered.

“I hope things are changing on a larger scale, but seeing things firsthand is the first step to being aware of who you’re buying meat from,” Levin said. “Our meat does cost more than meat in the supermarkets, but it has to do with the fact that the animal received more care and lived a healthier and better life.”

Paying farmers a fair price is also important, he said.

“Most small farmers can’t make a living farming, and that’s one reason why Jeremy opened the shop,” Levin said.

Butcher with an artist’s eye

Levin, who grew up in New Marlborough and graduated from Monument Mountain High School in 2002, has been a butcher for two years.

“Before that I was a sculptor, and before that I was a kid,” he said.

Levin’s attraction to the world of food took root while he was living in Brooklyn and making a living as a sculptor.

“I love cooking,” he said. “And at the time, there was some really exciting stuff happening with the Brooklyn food scene: cool restaurants like Marlow & Sons and butchers specializing in local, whole animals.”

Brooklyn’s epicurean renaissance coincided with Levin’s waning interest in a career in art.

“I was tired of working in the art world but wanted to continue being an artist,” he said. “Maybe it’s the sculptor in me. I like to be hands-on, … so I decided to do an apprenticeship with a butcher at Fleischer's Grass-Fed and Organic Meats in Rhinebeck and loved it.”

He later worked the meat counter at Eli’s in Manhattan while earning his master’s degree in sculpture.

“Then I started doing freelance work with small farms, everything from breaking down animals to adding value-added products like bacon and sausage to their line of goods and figuring out how to market them,” he said.

When Levin learned that a meat purveyor similar to Fleischer’s was opening in the Berkshires, there was no doubt in his mind where he wanted his budding career to take him.

“Jeremy needed a butcher, and I was ready to come back home,” he said.

These days Levin is focused on the art of breaking whole cows and pigs into sellable retail cuts of meat, but he also keeps track of staffing and payroll and oversees special events for the market. He works alongside the market’s other butcher, Jazu Stine, who oversees the charcuterie such as bologna, prosciutto, smoked ham, liver pate and capicollo.

Premium product – and price

The Meat Market’s prices may seem rarified when compared with conventional supermarkets (for example, $13.95 per pound for bacon, $14.95 per pound for roast beef), but Levin said the prices ultimately are fair.

“When you buy meat at the supermarket, the one profiting is the corporation like Iowa Beef or Smithfield,” he said. “The executives make the profit, not the farmer. During our first year in business, we put $250,000 in the hands of farmers we buy from. Our bacon is pricier, but it’s smoked in house and is remarkably different.”

In addition to the hand-cut steaks, homemade sausages, charcuterie, chicken, rabbit, lamb and veal, The Meat Market has a small amount of shelf space devoted to local and artisanal products: Berkshire wildflower honey, bags of heirloom lentils, and jars of Moutarde du Lion.

It also offers meat-centric cookbooks, such as “The Brisket Book,” “Whole Beast Butchery” and “Primal Cuts.” And there’s a cafe menu that features items like grass-fed, half-pound burgers topped with Vermont cheddar and sandwiches of pulled pork, smoked on the premises.

The market also offers cooking classes and its Fire Roasted Catering service, which provides off-site event cooking over an open flame.

“We’ve taken on a lot,” Levin said. “But we believe in what we’re doing, and we enjoy it. We just had a really busy summer, between our local clientele, New Yorkers with second homes in the area, and tourists.

“People are coming for different reasons,” he added. “Some want custom-cut butcher items, like a 2-inch-thick aged dry ribeye you can’t find elsewhere. Others come for ethical reasons, and for others it’s health reasons, because our meat is guaranteed to be antibiotic- and hormone-free.

“Those are the three major reasons people buy from us. But honestly, they’re all interconnected.”

The Meat Market is located at 389 Stockbridge Road in Great Barrington. For more information, visit www.themeatmarketgb.com or call (413) 528-2022.


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