farmers

In Praise of Minnesota Produce

Strawberries In our humble little cheese shops, we’re not trying to change the world. We’re simply trying, the best we know how, to make scrumptious food and send you home with it. It's no coincidence, however, that one mission can accomplish both. A mission to support our endlessly dedicated farmers brings us the tastiest ingredients. A need to pay homage to the tastiest ingredients roots our cooking in tradition, simplicity, and the elegance of native-grown produce.

Think about the last time you ate a fresh garden tomato or a summer strawberry. Maybe you’re naturally green-thumbed and have had the pleasure of growing it yourself. Was it so juicy that it seemed to spring a leak when you bit into it? Did its deep ruby shade and bright, bursting flavor beg you to enjoy the moment just a second longer? Perhaps it caused an involuntary “mmm…” or “whoa!” to escape your lips. Now compare it to its cloned, out-of-season grocery store counterpart. Maybe the inside was white and spongy or mealy, like it was part edible sand. Maybe there was simply nothing lovely enough about it to be memorable at all.

If we can agree on the beauty and intense flavor of a tomato and a strawberry at their most delicious, we certainly don’t need to ask the question, “Why local?” It isn’t surprising that something grown near us, picked at its peak of ripeness, sugar development, and water retention, packed carefully and driven across town to be used in the following days (not weeks or months) is overwhelmingly more delightful than the alternative. I think I’d be bruised, battered, and lifeless after an international flight, too. A walk around the block is much simpler.

Minnesota Produce

The massive and obvious difference between homegrown fare and the shipped-in variety inspires all kinds of wonder. A small, but palpable phenomenon occurs every time we infiltrate the Cheese Shop kitchen with any neighborhood-procured bounty. Mouths water at the sight of dazzling beet jewels. Questions abound watching garlic scapes being snake-coiled inside pickling jars. Ideas trickle in from unlikely sources and grandmother’s recipes long forgotten. Hilariously-shaped irregular carrots make the rounds to give everyone a snicker. The entire staff anxiously awaits spring greens as their memories of last year's spicy greens already fading like a wispy dream. Text messages proclaiming, “These strawberries are BLOWING MY MIND. They are so red all the way through!”, and the shock and awe of a significant other noticing, “This celery tastes salty and… green? Normal celery tastes like crunchy water.”

It’s hard not to love the people and communities who work tirelessly to bring us such delight. They are often covered in dirt, dressed like camp counselors, a little stinky and sweaty, and smiling from ear to ear when they appear in our kitchen. The pride in offering their life’s work in a cardboard box and sharing it with their community is contagious. It is impossible to say no to the prettiest kale or butter lettuce when it's presented by the guy who tended and picked it. And how could we not order bushels of peaches by faxing an order form and deposit to a farm that still does mail-order?

Our dedication to capitalizing on the heartbreakingly-short Minnesota growing season isn’t always all warm fuzzies and happy days, though. It typically means hard work and long hours. When ripe tomatoes hit and can’t wait patiently for our attention, we bring in hundreds of pounds a day to can, stew, roast, dry, and purée. Then we play Freezer Tetris to try to store it all for use in our roasted tomato risotto throughout the fall. Cases upon cases of Honeycrisp apples overtake our walk-in coolers, prep spaces, hallways, and lives as we feature them in house-made strudel or a signature honey, blue cheese, and apple sandwich, and pair them with cheese plates. Occasionally, you’ll hear the distant mad cackling of a kitchen employee who’s putting away the world’s silliest-looking pile of rhubarb or someone asking, “Are you absolutely sure you want to order $500 worth of ramps?!”

Anyone who’s tried gardening and growing, whether on a small or large scale, can sympathize with how frustrating, back-breaking, and rewarding it is. The committed individuals we’ve gotten to know over the years, not picking machines or shipping companies, are trading their time and energy for your delicious plate. Let’s enjoy it, and thank them by acknowledging (and paying for) the difference between a December tomato and a backyard beauty.

*At the France 44 Cheese Shop, the St Paul Cheese Shop, and the St Paul Meat Shop, you’ll find local produce featured in every way possible, and pick up a local fruit pie every Friday in the Meat Shop! **Special thanks to Afton Orchards, Stone’s Throw Farms & Shared Ground Farmer’s Cooperative, Hidden Stream, and the Minneapolis, Kingsfield, and Fulton Farmer’s Markets

On Managing a Meat Shop

nick_blog_star Here’s an interesting etymology: the word “manage” comes from the Italian “manèggiare,” or, “to put a horse through its paces” on the “manège,” a training area particularly for racing horses. What’s it been like managing a meat shop? I feel like I’ve had to learn the rules of horse racing, the regulations of horse training, the basics of horse physiology, and the philosophy of what it means to race horses, all while on horseback (though I’ve had lots of help). It’s been invigorating and fun, though I’d be lying if I told you my head wasn’t spinning. I think I like the way the horse training etymology works as a metaphor. Managing a meat shop, training a racing horse—mostly, what you are being asked to do is to take care of something that is important.

The role that I play as the general, day-to-day manager of the St. Paul Meat Shop is one of ensuring the soundness of its operations, and the delivery of the highest-possible quality of customer service. This latter item is something that I, personally, have cared about for a long time (of course, we are nothing—we are less than nothing—without being really, really on top of our day-to-day basic stuff!). I remember as a child growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, walking into Zingerman’s Delicatessen, being greeted by workers there who treated my family as if they already knew us, and then being given transcendentally delicious food to eat—the kind of food that, after the first bite, you just know is better than almost everything else you’ve ever eaten. The completeness of that experience is rare and special. I think we offer it at our cheese shops already: you can walk in, have somebody who is really nice in a basic human way offer you an artisanally-crafted, mind-blowingly tasty piece of cheese, and then be transported somewhere else by way of your taste buds.

The vision we have for the Meat Shop is very similar. We believe that you can raise animals for meat in an artisanal way—this goes beyond buzzwords like organic, local, sustainable, grass-fed, although these are all awesome principles and necessarily a part of what we do. The big idea is that there are some producers nearby who are really passionate about delicious meat, and have the know-how to make it happen. In theory, it’s not so different from affinage, or the art of aging or finishing a cheese. “Finishing” an animal on grass is an art, and “grass-fed,” on its own, simply isn't a guarantor of taste. We’ve found four farming partners who are doing great stuff, and we’re proud to be a market for them.

Returning to our horse racing metaphor, I’m only a trainer. The Meat Shop is the product of the passion of many people, starting with the farmers who raise their animals the way they believe is right, even in the face of a market that doesn’t always reward that conviction; continuing to our management and butchering team, whose collective belief in what food should taste like and what a retail experience should feel like is what animates our existence; and our amazing owner, who cares about good food, good wine, and about creating special opportunities for people to pursue these passions.

My part in this is to ensure we’re a reliable and friendly place to get awesome meat, but much of our shop’s functionality and personality is owed to our high-functioning and personable group of jockeys behind the counter, whom I would gladly buy meat from, but would also, were I in the neighborhood, perhaps just pop in to say hi to and maybe even consult for general advice. Managing a meat shop has been a lot of fun and a lot of hard work so far—now that we’re off to the races I hope you’ll come by and say “what’s up” to us soon!

--Nick Mangigian, Manager of the St. Paul Meat Shop