The Vermont Butcher Shop Brings Back Tradition
By Anita Rafael
Photography by Hubert Schriebl
“Kangaroo steaks,” says, Nick DeLauri. “That’s one of the more exotic meats a customer has asked for at the counter.” DeLauri, a Culinary Institute of America graduate, is the general manager of The Vermont Butcher Shop, and is on-site, day-to-day at the beautifully designed stores on Main Street in Manchester and on Main Street in Londonderry village. “But, that’s a highly unusual request,” he says. “In springtime, cooks tend to want a fresh leg of lamb and, of course, a great ham for Easter dinner.”
He can procure the ’roo meat, a product imported from Australia that comes from wild animals hunted legally during population culls. However, in one glance at the neatly lettered blackboards inside the front door and above the counters, it is evident that the specialty beef, lamb, pork, poultry and the house-made charcuterie at The Vermont Butcher Shop is sourced at farms, not factories. It is sustainable and unadulterated, which is the steadfast mantra of the farm-to-table ethic throughout the Green Mountain State.
“My favorite is hanger steak,” says Kevin Marvelli, owner of the Ira Allen House Bed and Breakfast in Sunderland and a devoted customer of The Vermont Butcher Shop. “I like it because it’s inexpensive, relatively, and I can simply grill it. The shop has so many cuts of meat I cannot find at the supermarket. I like having a butcher who knows what he’s doing.” He says that the crew behind the counter is eager to educate customers like him about the products that fill the 24-foot display case in the Manchester location. He and DeLauri often chat about the best cooking methods, and that’s where DeLauri’s CIA training kicks in.
“It’s not complicated.” DeLauri says. “A good piece of grass-fed beef just needs salt and pepper. The flavor is already there. I am a sear-guy myself. On the stove in a hot pan, just quickly brown the meat on all sides, then finish it for a few more minutes in the oven.” Talking about his profession, he says that butchering is not a dying art, and furthermore, he says to be able to break down a whole animal and make use of every part of it is a “transportable skill.”
In his view, Vermont is where California’s Napa Valley was in the late 1970s when it comes to the expense and effort that residents are willing to make to support a neighborhood business like The Vermont Butcher Shop that purveys products from farms within the state and the surrounding area as well as superb house-made foods. He estimates that about 75% of the shoppers in the butcher stores he manages are actively seeking meat from animals bred and raised on sustainable farms. One of his customers, Angela Okie of Weston, happily proves his point.
With its long history, Henry’s Market will forever be Bennington’s most traditional butcher shop, yet it is also a fresh fruit and vegetable stand, fabulous take-out market, wine and beer stop, and corner convenience store, all in one.
“My children always want to know the name of the farm that their dinner came from,” says Okie. She buys her meats at The Vermont Butcher Shop, popping into both locations regularly, despite her busy mother-of-four life. Her brood is three boys and a girl, all under age ten. “They get it that all the food on our table comes from someplace,” she says, “and knowing where makes them willing to try new things, like the shop’s own buffalo sausage made
with blue cheese and spices.” Okie admits that the outstanding quality of the meats and charcuterie that she buys from the shop inspires her to be a more creative cook. She once prepared a wild boar roast from The Vermont Butcher Shop. “My kids,” she says, “loved it.”
She finds it convenient, she says, to make that one extra stop at the meat market. “I can call ahead, even on the same day, for a certain size roast or a boned chicken and they have my order all ready,” she says. “Without even looking at it first, I know it’s all going to be perfect and delicious.” It is particularly important to her to support the farmers who produce the meat her family eats. farmers, but knowing that she has “her own butcher” is what matters most.
Some things never change
Now, take a moment: having your own butcher. Is that something great-grandpa retro or chic-ish nouveau? Definitely not new. At Henry’s Market on Main Street in Bennington, the people behind the meat counter and at the register have known every steady customer by name since the market opened over a hundred years ago. Owner Gene Guertin bought Henry’s Market from Henry Salem 15 years ago, and he says, “I didn’t see the need to change much of anything.” Some of his customers have been shopping at Henry’s Market for more than 60 years.
A huge red and white sign on the side of the building says “The Best Meats in Town” and, once inside, it is obvious that the claim is utterly uncontestable. “People think small butcher shops like this charge more for quality meat, but we don’t,” says Guertin. “We can maintain reasonable prices and offer fresher products because we sell so much meat every day.” The best deals at Henry’s Market are their “package plans.” Any shopper can buy meat, as little as ten pounds, or as much as 150 pounds at restaurant prices, choosing all one type or a mix and match of beef, pork and poultry, bone-in or boneless, fresh or cured.
Places like Henry’s Market that sell fresh meat to an unfailingly loyal customer base, retail and wholesale, cannot risk a recall, and it is unlikely that there would ever be one. Guertin says, “We don’t have the kinds of safety issues that large meat packing houses have. Our meat comes in fresh three or four times a week, only one or two people handle it, and it’s minimally processed.” Over the cutting table behind the display cases are the common tools of the trade—a few well-honed knives and a hefty cleaver. “They don’t use cleavers at the supermarket anymore. Meat comes in already sawed up,” says Guertin. “and it’s not the same.”
Right up front at Henry’s Market is a huge cooler bin, filled to the brim with an assortment of smoked products. In Waterford, New York, just north of Troy, Guertin has a second store and a smoking operation where they prepare their own brand of Henry’s Market smoked meats. Guertin says, “We make a variety of everyone’s favorite snack sticks using 100% meat, and some have both smoked cheese and meat. We vacuum pack the products ourselves, then chill everything.” It is fresh for about 30 days, Guertin says, but the market sells bins full of snack sticks and smoked meats long before the month is out.
With its long history, Henry’s Market will forever be Bennington’s most traditional butcher shop, yet it is also a fresh fruit and vegetable stand, fabulous take-out market, wine and beer stop, and corner convenience store, all in one. Any customer can walk in hungry and leave with an entire meal, appetizers to dessert, to take home and cook, or already prepared to just heat and eat. Just write this down right now: the house-made chicken potpie. “It’s the real deal,” says Guertin. But then, there’s also their gorgeous quiche; and add their potato-smothered shepherd’s pie to that shopping list, too.
Worth the trip
The road is a relatively even 17 miles or so from Manchester center to Wallingford, a pleasant drive north on VT Route 7. It is a scenic ride for the most part, with high ridges to the east and west, running parallel to the railroad line. Wallingford village is Vermont-picturesque. Along the quaint Main Street lined with trees, there are iconic churches, nice homes and small businesses. One of the main attractions in town is a meat market called Wallingford Locker. The plain white clapboard building sits just a tad off Main Street on Florence Avenue, a residential block. Co-owners Holly and George Keeler run the business.
“See?” says Holly Keeler, pointing to each word on the wall facing the street, “It’s right on the sign. ‘Just a little old-fashioned meat market’.” That is exactly what the sign out front says, and inside, the small retail space is indeed old-fashioned. There are a few fluorescent strips overhead, a gray-painted concrete floor, walls lined with display cases, and in the corners are the walk-ins, those huge, oaken doors that whoosh cold air when opened, and whose giant, metal handles clank loudly when the doors slam shut. The sparkling clean cases in the store are filled with cuts of meat and poultry that have been hand-cut, trimmed, and precisely wrapped in crisp, snow-white butcher paper. Rubber stamped in red ink, each one says “Thank you for your patronage” along with the name and weight of the cut. Customers can choose for themselves among the neatly stacked gift-like packages, large, medium or small.
The Wallingford Locker’s true artistry is in the way they run their half-century old, custom-built cob-smoker down at the far end of the building. Keeler says, “We shovel the cob into the firebox by hand. Nothing we do is automated.”
“We’ll cut all our meats, fresh, to order,” Keeler says, “but most shoppers buy our products frozen and wrapped because they know it’s going to be good. Our food has not been sitting on display for several days covered in plastic under red light bulbs and injected with preservatives to keep it looking decent.” Deep inside the market’s big freezer is another unit used to flash freeze meat immediately after it has been cut and trimmed.
“It’s quick,” she says, “so the meat stays perfect, no freezer burn.”
This market’s true artistry is in the way they run their half-century old, custom-built cob-smoker down at the far end of the building. Keeler says, “We shovel the cob into the firebox by hand. Nothing we do is automated.” Cob is ground-up dried corncobs, which Keeler says produces a kinder, gentler smoke than hickory and other hardwoods. “And, you won’t find any dispensers of liquid smoke back here,” she says.
Cob is a slow smoke, too. The hams, bacon and other meats stay in the smoker for several hours and then everything is moved to a separate smoked-meat-only cooler. Wallingford Locker produces an enormous quantity of cob-smoked products, but Keeler makes it clear to everyone that the shop does not mass-produce anything. “Our customers,” she says, “take home more of our smoked products than anything else.” Some of the smoked foods to choose from include aged cheddar, ham, bacon, sausages, pepperoni, pork chops, ribs and hot dogs (the •••-pounders are called “Big Boys”). They smoke-cure whole turkey legs, too, which is simply the ultimate snack. A note to shoppers—remember to bring cash or a check because Wallingford Locker does not accept credit or debit cards.
And finally, this—at Wallingford Locker, newcomers are inclined to wonder, why is this market called a locker? Holly Keeler, a former chemistry teacher, explains with a history lesson. “At one time,” she says, “rural families and farmers did not have freezers at home to store meat whenever they slaughtered cows or pigs, so there were commercial freezers where they could rent a bin to store their butchered meat. They would go and get the meat as they needed it. Community meat lockers were quite common after World War II, but of course, they disappeared when people got chest freezers at home and no longer did their own butchering.”
But, not all of them have gone the way of the horse and buggy. Wallingford Locker still rents meat lockers inside their big freezer. “Some of the compartments are full of moose,” Keeler says. “Many hunters store meat here, because you can’t fit a whole moose in your house.” If you did not win a moose tag in last year’s lottery, the market will gladly sell you a side of beef, or a whole pig, then cut it to your liking, smoke it, wrap it and rent you a meat locker, too. The carnivore’s solution. ◊
– Anita Rafael lives and works in Wardsboro, Vermont. She has been a contributor to Stratton Magazine since 2007.