Italian Culinary Institute

Making the Most of Your Animal: What Nose to Tail Can Really Be

Yak Butchering

The Yak

Hammer

I am still in awe that one, single, well-placed strike with a sledge hammer had the power to drop the massive beast instantly to its knees...unconscious.  It was the last time the animal moved.  Certainly, it was not the first time this Mongolian herder had killed a yak, and his experience showed.  As soon as the yak hit the ground the herder dropped the hammer, picked up his knife and sliced the animal’s jugular so it would bleed out.  Nothing out here in the northern Mongolian steppe goes to waste, and most certainly not this yak’s blood.  A metal pot was quickly placed under the stream of blood in order to collect every last drop before the animal’s heart stopped beating and no more blood flowed through its veins.  When it was finally dead, the yak was rolled onto its rounded back and two logs were placed on either side to keep it from shifting during the butchering process.

Butchering such a massive animal efficiently is much easier with several people and two of the yak herder’s “neighbors” came to assist.  Out here, neighbor is a relative term.  To me, where I come from, neighbor would mean the people that live in the house located about 50 yards away from mine, but on the steppe the nearest neighbor could be 30 miles away!  These two neighbors made quite a journey to help their friend, the herder, process the yak.

After the animal was in position, the butchering commenced much as I would have expected...each of the two men took a front leg and using their knives “wringed” the skin just above the feet while the herder sliced the skin across the chest from one foot to the other.  Starting from the mid-point of this cut, a second cut was made all the way to the anus.  Then, the three men all repositioned to the bottom half of the yak and did the same there - wringing the skin above the rear feet and slicing the skin from one foot to the other crossing just above the anus.  Next, the sledgehammer that had dispatched the animal was picked up and while one man held the skin tight another repeatedly swung the hammer where the skin was still attached to the carcass to separate it.  This was done all around the cuts to provide complete access to the chest and belly.  Once the skin was peeled back, a tarp was laid down on the ground underneath the rear feet and then the first of several unorthodox butchering strategies unfolded in front of my eyes - and they were like nothing I had ever seen before.  It wasn’t until I better realized the context within which they were operating and how what they valued from the animal differed from what I was used to in my modern western world that the rationale behind every move they made became crystal clear. 

Perspectives and values advise what parts of the animals are consumed and who consumes them.  All of this, in turn, dictates how the animal is butchered.  The butchering process is an honest and open window into a society’s culture and diet.  

Guts

In our modern, western, meat-centric approach the next step in the butchering process would be to make one cut through the belly beginning at the anus and stopping at the sternum, being careful not to puncture the organs to avoid contamination of the meat.  This creates access to the organs which are then pulled out of the body through this single, relatively small hole.  In this butchering scheme the organs are considered “offal” or “off-fall” - a byproduct of butchering the animal for the purpose of obtaining meat.   And, this approach accomplishes that goal rapidly allowing butchers to quickly remove the organs to move on to the real prize - the flesh.   

It was 40 degrees below zero and the wind was whipping here on the northern Mongolian steppe.  You would think these three men who have come together to help butcher this yak would want to get it over with as soon as possible so that they could retreat into the warmth of the Ger which was a mere 50 feet away billowing smoke from its peak signifying the strength of the fire inside.  But, the quick approach to removing offal from the yak is not the direction they took.  Instead, they carefully cut around the entire rib cage and belly and removed a huge section of the animal in what can only be described as an immense shield-like piece and set it aside.  The scene now resembled something more like an autopsy than a butchering, but once I realized what was happening, it made complete sense.  Removing practically the entire chest and belly of the animal provided the butchers unobstructed access to what they obviously prized most - the nutrient dense organs, blood and fat inside the carcass - not the flesh on the outside.  

The three men, with hands like surgeons, worked together seamlessly to accomplish the next, crucial step - removal of the organs.  First, the mesentery, a lacy membrane covered with fingers of yellowish-white fat that enveloped the organs, was removed and set aside so that they could later wrap the liver in it for frying.  Then, they grabbed the trachea, cut around it, and began to pull using the knife slice anything still connecting it and everything below it to the inside of the body cavity.  As the trachea was pulled out of the body the entirety of the inside of the yak was removed in one huge pile onto the tarp that was earlier laid down between the back legs.  The three men then set to work on what they viewed as a highly prized pile of food on the tarp!   The spleen and the gall bladder, the only two parts of the animal they do not eat were fed to the dogs.  The liver, heart, kidney, and lungs were removed and saved for future consumption. 

Organs

Finally, the intestines and stomach were handed over to the wife of the yak herder who accepted them with an ear to ear smile.  She carried them over to a special place in the yard reserved specifically for cleaning them.  The existing pile of frozen intestinal and stomach contents on which she worked was evidence that they have butchered other yaks this year.  The intestines were destined to serve as casings for a sausage made of dried that, once made, hangs from the roof of the Ger where the smoke envelopes it as it escapes.  The stomach, on the other hand, once cleaned out is filled with butter made from yak milk where it ferments for several months.

What happened next was the second surprise of the day.  Once all of the blood and organs were successfully removed, the rest of the skin was peeled from the carcass.  The surgical precision and cooperation displayed during the removal of the organs quickly transformed into something completely different when they removed to the meat.  The precision was gone.  There were no primal cuts, or subprimal cuts or, for that matter any recognizable individual cuts of meat, whatsoever.  In fact, the meat was not removed from the bone at all.  Everything, I mean everything that was left was chopped up together into fist-sized chunks each containing its own proportional share of meat, gristle, and fat.  What was once a yak was now a pile of indiscernible pieces.  Fascinating.  

 

Every single part of this animal was consumed (except the spleen and gallbladder).  However, that was not the most surprising take away from the unique opportunity I had witnessing this butchering.  Rather, it was the extremely high value that was placed on the most nutrient dense part of the animal and the equally strong, but apathetic attitude towards the meat - the obverse of the modern western view to which I was accustomed.  

 

At first, this seemed strange.  Then, after reflecting on our modern western practices, the ones in which I have operated within for my entire life, ours were the ones that now seemed strange.  I felt embarrassed and disconnected…  All of a sudden I needed desperately to find a way to incorporate everything I had witnessed in Mongolia into mine and my family’s life.  But how?  Where was I going to learn the skills I needed to learn to make the most use of animals in ways that were practical and meaningful?  I needed to find ways to use the entire animal and to do so from the an ethical and ancestral place.  And, the results had to be look good, taste good and smell good.  They needed to be delicious if they were going to make a difference.  This was an extremely high bar to set and one that I did not think would be easily attainable.  It took awhile, but I finally found more than I ever could have dreamed of...in Italy of all places!


Chef John and the Italian Culinary Institute

Chef John & Bill

I was on a mission.  I needed to find a place to learn advanced forms of butchering where the utilization of the entire animal, from cooking to preservation including drying, fermenting and curing using traditional methods without the use of nitrates or starter cultures, was the focus.  I wanted to start at the farm and meet the farmer who raised the animal.  I wanted to clean intestines for sausage casings and actually stuff them myself!  I wanted to eat all the parts of the animal we were not preserving for long-term storage and close the loop - from life to death to food to nutrients.  I wanted a course steeped in tradition and filled with stories and inspiration.  This was a tall order, but I was convinced that a quick internet search would reveal several options from which I would be able choose.  I was wrong.  After searching the internet for weeks I was experiencing a great deal of difficulty finding what I needed.  There were plenty of really interesting options from which to choose where I could learn the basics of butchering - from as brief as day-long workshop’s to learning experiences lasting several months. 

However, everything I found was lacking something I required from my search.  That is, except for one - the Italian Culinary Institute.  The description of what they offered in their Traditional Italian Charcuterie and Salumi course read like it was exactly what I was looking for in a course.  I tried to look up reviews on the school but could not find much, so I ignorantly brushed the website aside time after time.  Every instance when I thought I found what I was looking for in another site, upon further research I was disappointed.  Over time, I found myself subconsciously using the Italian Culinary Institute’s description of their course  as a model for what I was looking for elsewhere and, I finally realized what I was looking for was in their program.  That was where I needed to go.

Once I made my decision, I shifted gears and focused on booking a place in the ICI’s next Traditional Italian Charcuterie and Salumi course and finding a way to get myself there.  The website said they required a deposit and that all I needed to do was find a way to the Lamezia airport and everything else was covered once I landed.  I took the plunge, filled out my form and sent in my deposit.  And, I waited.  And waited.  And nothing.  I thought my fears had been realized and that this wasn’t actually real.  So I sent a message to the president and head chef, John Nocita and asked if we could talk on the phone to make sure everything was in place.  He replied, “of course,” and we spoke on the phone the next morning.  During our brief conversation he assured me everything was fine, the deposit was received and I had nothing to worry about.  I was still skeptical - it just seemed too good to be true. 

My fears remained even as I landed in the tiny Calabrian regional airport in Lamezia Terme and became more intense as I waited for almost an hour at baggage claim for my bags that never arrived!  It wasn’t until I passed through customs with just my carry-on and I noticed a woman holding a sign containing the name ,“Schindler” scribbled in Sharpie that I realized there was actually something, or at least someone waiting for me in Italy.  This provided me with a small feeling of relief, but I still had no idea what to expect once I actually made it to the Italian Culinary Institute.  The woman who picked me up spoke very little English and, although she was very nice there was not much conversation in her van during the 45 minute-long trip to ICI.  The coast-to-coast drive from the airport in Lamezia Terme, located in the west near the Tyrrhenian Sea, to the Italian Culinary Institute, located in the east overlooking the Ionian Sea spans what is perhaps the narrowest part of Italy - the constriction right before the big “toe” of the boot in the south. 

The sign for Hotel Baia dell’Est was posted at the entrance as we began our final ascent up the steep drive leading up the side of mountain. The van came to a stop at the entrance to the hotel and as I stepped out I was greeted immediately by a woman wearing a white chef’s coat and a huge smile!  I immediately recognized embroidered symbol and letters ICI on her chef’s coat from the institute’s web page and was comforted in seeing it. 

ICI

So, this actually was a real place!  From that moment forward - beginning with my first interaction with someone from ICI - my fears were not only allayed, but I continued to be more and more impressed than I could ever have imagined!  Chef Dawn led me to my room and as I entered I immediately noticed two things - both fantastic and both illustrative of what I was about to experience over the next week - the breathtaking view through the window at the far end of the room overlooking the Ionian Sea and the plate of homemade Italian salumi and cheeses next to a bottle of red wine on the desk (oh, there was a bottle of water too, but it didn’t rise to the same level as the view and the food and the wine!).  The spectacular view of the Ionian Sea was ever-present throughout my entire time and, from that moment forward there was never the slightest hint of hunger or thirst for the entire week!

That night, once all the students were seated around a meticulously set table in the heart of the Italian Culinary Institute, I met the president and head chef, John Nocita for the first time in person.  He walked in and his presence immediately commanded the room.  His striking similarity to cast members of every mafia-themed movie or show certainly helped in this regard.  Once all of our glasses were filled with wine, he toasted the group and then proceeded to tell us what to expect during our week under his tutelage.  I listened with fascination as every bit of the schedule he laid out for us seemed as if I dreamt it up myself.  I was so excited (and, to be completely honest, slightly nervous) to get into the kitchen with this man the next day.  But, when he told us what time to meet for our first day, how we should dress and what to expect I realized that we were not beginning this course on Traditional Italian Charcuterie and Salumi in the kitchen.  No.  We were doing something far more important, starting one crucial step earlier... we were starting at a farm.  Then, as soon as the meal was over, he left.  That was the last dinner he shared with us until the final night of the class.  He used the separation at the evening meals as an opportunity to both allow the students to come together as a cohesive group while also maintaining the teacher/student boundaries at appropriate levels.  Sharing food is a powerful act and understanding the role that is holds in human relationships is equally powerful.  He has certainly taught many times before and has it figured out perfectly.

Field

The Pig

The next day we loaded into a bus and drove up the mountains to visit the 100% Organic Free-Range Farm, Casellone, who would supply the Calabrian Black Pigs for our class.  Upon arrival at the farm my first thought was how it didn’t smell or look anything like a pig farm with which I was familiar.  I spent a year of my life in my early twenties living and working on a huge pig farm in Powell, Ohio and I will never forget the smell and lack of, well, any other life around except the pigs.  This farm in Calabria was nothing like that.  Yes, there were pigs and fences, and even some wooden pens.  But, otherwise, it didn’t look like a pig farm at all.  There were trees - and plenty of them!  And there was actually grass and bushes.  It was not the vegetation-free, stench filled, virtual mud-bath that is typically the case with most modern pig farms.  This was something completely different and the interaction between the farmer, the pigs and the environment was also completely different. There is no doubt the pigs reared on this farm are far superior than those from the more common modern factory farms in every way. 

John demoing

The farmer came out of his home with his family and introduced us to his wife and his daughter.  He then gave us a tour of the farm and told us all about traditional Black Calabrian breed pigs and what makes them special.  He informed us they are one of only six native breeds to Italy and told us how explorers, even 350 years ago, spoke of the quality of the meat in this region.  He talked to us about raising the pigs and compared the firm flesh of his Calabrian Black pigs with the softer, more water-filled flesh of the typical modern white pig.  Not only are his pigs raised on much higher quality diets (which includes olives!), but it takes his pigs one and a half years to reach 150 kilograms while modern white pigs can do the same in less than a year.  And, after meeting the pigs we got to select the two pigs that we would use for the workshop.  The tour ended in the farmer’s home around a few large tables where we tasted some of his homemade extra virgin olive oil and bread providing the opportunity to ask him any final questions we had.  Then we loaded the bus and headed back to ICI.  As I sat on the bus I began to think about the pigs - especially the two pigs we had selected to use during the course.  In order to get them to the ICI for our use later that day I was confident that as I comfortably sat on the bus, the two pigs were being prepared for slaughter.  Or, perhaps they were already dead.  Beginning the course here, at the farm was brilliant on Chef John’s part.  We met the pigs and observed their personalities, listened to them and heard their voice, touched them and felt their life.  This experience added an important level of responsibility to what we were doing and made how we go about doing it so much more important.  This is something that it missing in our modern relationship with the animals that provide us food.  But, it was front and center in everything we did with Chef John.

Once we returned to ICI we ate (eating was a common theme throughout the entire week!) and Chef John embarked on a series of lectures and presentations about Italian Regional Cuisine, traditional Italian butchering and salumi, and laid the groundwork for all that we were about to do once we had the pigs in front of us and knives in our hands.  He told story after story to steep us in the tradition that over the past several hundred years created the traditional practices we were about to learn.  We learned about safety and the difference between working with a properly raised, recently slaughtered pig.  We were immersed in the context we needed before we even picked up a knife.

John and Pig parts

Butchering, cooking and preservation

The pigs, dehaired, gutted, and split in half arrived later that day.  All of the internal organs were delivered separately in bags except for the intestines, which arrived in a big 5-gallon plastic bucket.  The organs were immediately placed in the refrigerator and the split carcasses laid on the workstation tables.  The bucket of intestines were placed in the large sink in the back of the room.  Chef John then assembled us around the half of the pig and began to walk us through the different options we had that would inform how we would approach taking each individual half apart.  He used his finger as a virtual knife and we explored in detail the anatomy of the pig and the different American, Spanish and Italian approaches to butchering.  I will never forget the very last thing he did before we initiated the butchering process - he cut several lemons in half and, using the newly exposed cut surfaces, wiped the inside of every carcass with the lemons.  He did this as a sanitizing measure to ensure the exposed surfaces of meat were safe.  It is the same approach I use at home to clean my work surfaces - I used vinegar instead of lemons, but the chemistry is the same.  Although is does not sterilize, low pH, acidic nature of both lemons and vinegar sanitizes by destroying many harmful pathogens and, with high quality fresh ingredients handled the right way, is enough to ensure food safety.  This was perfectly in line with my approach and an incredible first day!

Once the fabrication began we literally did not stop for the entire week. Whenever he felt we needed a break, Chef John stepped to make us, in his words, “a little snack” which almost always amounted to a full course worth of food and each one were experiential learning opportunities in their own right.  His mantra, “you should never eat on an empty stomach” was one we all practiced during our entire time there.

Bill & Chef
Cooking a snack
The animal
Bill with pork

Through lectures, stories, demonstrations, and a ton of hands-on teaching and learning Chef John and everyone that assisted him, created an incredible experience for us all.  We prepped parts of the pig for fermentation and curing and long term storage.  We cooked and ate, on the spot, the other parts such as the organs, skin, ears and certain cuts of meat immediately.  I even spent one of our lunch breaks with one of his assistants, Maria, cleaning, scraping and preparing the intestines that we would later stuff for fresh and fermented sausages.  By the end of the course we made a variety of whole muscle cures such as pancetta and prosciutto.  We made lardo, or cured pig fat.  We used the bones for bollito, or bone broth.  We made various fermented and cured meats including salami and, my personal favorite, ‘Nduja, a fermented and cured spicy spread made from all sorts of leftover bits that didn’t meet the standards for other cured meat products  - a true “zero-waste” food that tastes absolutely delicious.  We made a number of different cooked dishes using everything from “choice” cuts of meat in pasta dishes, to skin in pork skin braciole, and odd bits and pieces in head cheese and bolito.  We adhered to tradition but also innovated when appropriate.  Everything was delicious and presented beautifully.  It was all nutrient dense.  And, since I was a part of the entire process I felt a special connection to all of it that could never be replaced by anything I could buy - anywhere - no matter how good it tasted or how much it cost.  Safety and respect for the animal was ever present at the forefront of everything we did.   However, what impressed me the most at the end of the week was that the parts of the pig that we did not use filled up a medium-sized bowl!  That’s it! We started with two large pigs and, over the course of a week using traditional food processing technologies transformed almost the entirety of both of them into nutritious, delicious, gorgeous food that appealed to all of our senses and to which we all felt a close connection.  It was pure magic.

I left empowered and inspired.  I gained a whole new appreciation for what is possible to create in the kitchen when raw materials, in this case animals, are transformed into food with the right skills and approach.  I was now even more disheartened with how we treat animals in our food chain in much the modern western world.  There is so much more we can do - and most of the answers are not new, rather, the path forward can be found in the past.  


Making the Most of your Animal

Teaching flintknapping

I left the Italian Culinary Institute with my head filled with knowledge, my hands filled with know-how and, most importantly, having made an incredible new friend and colleague in Chef John Nocita.  A few days into the workshop Chef John learned about the work that I do and my approach to food both informed by the technologies of our ancestral dietary past.  He and I had several early morning meetings before class began each day and stayed in contact after I left.  In order to supplement the context he already provides in his course he has brought me back to the Italian Culinary Institute several times to deliver lectures and workshops for his master’s students on our ancestral dietary past.  These have been incredible opportunities for me to share my work with his students while simultaneously continuing to learn from him.

I finally had a chance to include Chef John and his expertise in the Food Evolutions project and a great way to bring full-circle what I experienced in Mongolia and my journey to learn to translate it into something that is both meaningful and delicious!  On May 17th, Chef John came to Ireland so that we could co-present an interactive one-day workshop we titled: Making the Most of Your Animal: context, implementation and taste. 

The description of the workshop read:

 

The nose-to-tail approach to eating animals is more ethical, sustainable, and nutritious than the current practice which, for many of us, means a diet comprised of the same cuts of meat from the same few animals.  In order to make changes to our modern diets and food system to restore our health and the health of the planet we need to adopt a whole animal approach similar to that of the past.  This workshop provides exposure to the knowledge and basic skills necessary to make the most of the animal to produce informed, meaningful food that reaches its full potential by exceeding modern expectations of flavor, texture and presentation.

Through a dynamic combination of presentation, demonstration and tasting offered by Experimental Archaeologist and the Director of the Eastern Shore Food Lab, Dr. Bill Schindler and Master Chef and President of the Italian Culinary Institute, John Nocita learn: 

  • How animals have been a part of the human diet for almost 3.5 million years and why it is important to know.
  • See examples of approaches to making the most of an animal using traditional regional Italian Cuisine deeply rooted in both history and sense of place.
  • Experience how amazing food made from even the strangest parts of an animals
 
Bill & Chef

The event was co-sponsored by the Eastern Shore Food Lab at Washington College, the Italian Culinary Institute, Odaios Foods, University College Dublin, and Airfield Estates.  It took place on the Airfield Estates grounds and, through a combination of lecture, presentation, butchery and cooking demonstration, and tasting and discussion we tackled important topics that ranged from our 3.5 million year long relationship with animals in our diets to butchering techniques focused on a nose-to-tail approach.  Most importantly we wanted to illustrate a powerful approach that included archaeology, experimental archaeology, ethnography combined with traditional and modern culinary techniques.  The audience consisted of trained chefs, culinary students, faculty from local culinary schools, archaeologists, experimental archaeology students, archaeology professors, and a few people that didn’t fit into the above categories but had a genuine interest in food.  It was a truly interdisciplinary event with an equally interdisciplinary audience that closely resembled the various approaches Chef John and I believe we all need to take in order to reconnect with our food and create meaningful change in our food, diets, and health.

Bill Talking
Chef John talking
Dr. Aidan O'Sullivan (University College of Dublin), Ms. Grainne Kelligher (Airfield Estate), Chef John Nocita (Italian Culinary Institute), Dr. Bill Schindler (Washington College) and Mr. Jason O'Brien (Odaios Foods)

Dr. Aidan O'Sullivan (University College of Dublin), Ms. Grainne Kelligher (Airfield Estate), Chef John Nocita (Italian Culinary Institute), Dr. Bill Schindler (Washington College) and Mr. Jason O'Brien (Odaios Foods)

 

A nose-to-tail approach does not have to automatically result a grey mass of strange looking, tasting and smelling food.  Instead, with an open-mind fueled, inspired and informed by the approaches of our ancestors, extant traditional societies, and a handful of groundbreaking chefs we can do something different.  

 

By focusing on using the entire animal, recognizing and increasing nutrient density and bioavailability, and celebrating (not masking) the range of textures and flavors of all of the parts of animals we can transform our diets and relationship with animals in very powerful, meaningful and accessible ways.  Most importantly, it is something we can do in our own home kitchens.  By making small, meaningful steps you will slowly begin to change your approach/view, build your skills, and empower yourself to take the next step.  Start with buying a whole chicken, butchering it yourself and using every single part - making several different dishes from meat, skin, giblets, and bones.  Then, once you have mastered the chicken go to the butcher and buy a whole pork shoulder, butcher it, and again use every part.  Make your own nutrient rich bone broths.  Make pates from livers.  Learn to cook kidneys.  Eat marrow - roasted marrow is delicious!  Use the skin of every single animal you eat.  Then, once you have developed your skill set and feel confident, begin to cure meat (why not make your own bacon?), make head cheese and even hot dogs.  Make your own salami.  Get together with neighbors and tackle butchering an entire half of a pig making use of every single piece! 

ICI Halloween Trip

Reconnect, learn, develop, empower yourself, have fun, and create change. 

Everyone and everything around you will benefit from it!

 

 

 

Connecting over Bone Broth

Almost exactly a year ago, I boarded a WOW Air flight in BWI bound for Reykjavik, Iceland.  This was the first leg of an almost two-week long food research trip I had been anticipating for months. The first ten days were to be spent at the Italian Culinary Institute where I was enrolled in a Traditional Italian Salumi and Charcuterie course.  This would be my first professional culinary training.  Afterward, I was bound for Copenhagen where I had meetings lined up at the Nordic Food Lab, one of the primary sources of original inspiration for the Eastern Shore Food Lab.  Despite my excitement for what lie in store for me, as the plane taxied toward the runway my mind was laser focused on how I would spend the next six and a half hours on my flight . . .  getting lost in the brand-new book that arrived at my doorstop from Amazon the day before.

Check out Bill's research for the Eastern Shore Food Lab

 

On the plane I was seated near an emergency exit so there was only one other seat in my aisle – an ideal setting for reading and not being disturbed.  I was so focused on my book that I had no interaction with the man seated next to me save for the obligatory nod as I had taken my seat a few minutes earlier.  And, why would I?  Over the past few years I have flown extensively and what I used to view as an opportunity to relax, binge watch movies, or even talk to the people around me I now saw as an opportunity sit in my own little word and catch up on work.  It had literally been years since I was engaged in a conversation with a stranger on a plane.  No, I would be lost in my book for the entire trip.

The book that sparked the "Chef" question

The book that sparked the "Chef" question

The author of the book in my hands was Christian Puglisis, formerly a sous chef at NOMA and currently the owner/chef of a progressive and ethically sound restaurant in Copenhagen, RELÆ that bears the same name as his book.  This book was written in the same style as other progressive chefs have been writing lately – part cookbook, part interconnected essays, and part philosophy on food. 

As I began to read through the pages, I realized the book was turning out to be incredibly inspiring to me.  I am in the midst of developing the Eastern Shore Food Lab at Washington College and I really connected with Puglisis’s desire to create something that really supported his ethical stance on food.  I glared at the gorgeous photographs of foods I could only dream of creating that made use of all sorts of uber-local and under-utilized ingredients.  More importantly, I poured through the pages and learned about how he created his restaurant from nothing in a previously impoverished and crime ridden part of Copenhagen, and how his work help to support a rebirth in that community.  As I read on, I dreamed about how what the college was building with in the Eastern Shore Food Lab would help bring knowledge, health, and inspiration to not only our students but the larger Eastern Shore community by empowering them to take control of their food and diet.


All of a sudden, I was interrupted and shaken from my day dream . . . 

Cooking with Billy

“Are you a chef?” the man next to me asked. 

I looked up from my book and muttered, “huh?” shocked that he had spoken to me and wondering why he asked if I was a chef.  When he saw the surprise in my expression he motioned to the cookbook in my hands and asked again, “are you a chef?”  I have been passionate about cooking since I was a child, devoured every episode of Julia Child on a black and white television set, bought practically every cookbook that Amazon ever suggested, and spent a tremendous amount of time in the field hunting and gathering and in the kitchen preparing food for my family.  But, unfortunately, none of those things qualified me to call myself a chef.  So, I quickly answered, “no” and returned to my book. 

A moment later I felt very uncomfortable with my abrupt answer.  It was too short and in no way did it adequately capture who I was and the journey I was one.  Nor, most importantly, did it relay what I was doing reading this particular book and why it was so important to me.  So, I closed the book, turned to the man seated next to me, and began to tell him all about archaeology, experimental archaeology, ancestral foodways, nutrient density and the Eastern Shore Food Lab.  This is a spiel I have given before.  Unfortunately, I don’t have the elevator speech version down and don’t know if I ever will (or if I every should).  It’s all too complicated, too important, too intertwined to distil down to a few sentence description.  I would often see the life getting sucked out of the recipient of my long-winded description of how we have been processing food for millions of years and how that impacted biological and cultural evolution and, why it is so important to understand all of that if we are to improve our modern diets and health. 

 

The typical response from whoever was unfortunate enough to receive my impassioned tirade, if they lasted long enough, was a polite nod before they found another person to talk to OR, if they were stuck with me, changed the topic. But, my response from the man seated next to me on this plane was different.  There was a thoughtful look on his face. 

He smiled, reached out his hand, and said, “That’s fascinating.  My name is Konrad Knops.  And, my business partner and I just started a bone broth company in Germany called, Brox.  Please, tell me more about what you are doing.”
 

Over the next five hours we were engaged in one of the most meaningful conversations about food I have ever had!

Brodo.jpg

He told me about his business, Urban Health whose focus is on holistic health and longevity.  He told me how he began to prepare and provide his clientele with bone broth because of all of the nutritional and health benefits it possessed and how the demand was so great that he and his business partner, Jin-Woo Bae, decided to start Brox.  In fact, the reason he was sitting here next to me was because he returning home from a research trip to Brodo in New York City. 

 

Brodo was launched in 2014 when Chef Marco Canora, who had recently witnessed the benefits of bone broth after regaining his own health, repurposed a street-front window off the side of his restaurant, Hearth, as a place from which to sell cups of bone broth.  The demand was high and it didn’t take long to see the pedestrians’ in the lower east side of Manhattan transform the contents of the cups in their hands from coffee to bone broth.  The success and attention that Brodo attracted along with his cookbook, Brodo: a bone broth cookbook, really helped fuel the bone broth craze in America that was taking place.  Today, in addition to shipping all over the country, Chef Marco still maintains his, “Brodo Window,” and now has a broth shop in the West Village and has even partnered with the NYU Langone Medical Center to supply new mothers in the maternity ward with nutrient dense bone broth!  I was very familiar with Brodo.  I had been cooking out of Chef Canora’s book for months by the time I met Konrad and had dragged Christina to visit the Brodo bone broth window the earlier spring for our own bone broth pilgrimage.  It was the perfect place for Konrad to visit as he built his bone broth business.

 

Konrad and I talked about health, diet, tradition, prehistory, and how politics and the modern healthcare system have impacted our health.  We talked about what a healthy diet truly means and how the United States and Europe and many other places in the world were facing the same diet and health problems.  We talked about how to empower people to take back control of their food and diet.  The dialogue was so intense and meaningful that I didn’t want the flight to end because that would also mean an end to the conversation. 

 

When we landed in Reykjavík, I invited Konrad to visit the Eastern Shore Food Lab when we are up and running so that he could see what we are buiding and suggested that it would be great if Konrad could conduct a workshop for students and the community and also give a presentation at the college.  And, Konrad invited me to visit Brox, his bone broth operation in Berlin.  Both invitations were entirely genuine, but, I was skeptical that we would ever see one another again. 


 

Conversations this intense and meaningful transport those engaged in them to a temporary alternative universe of sorts where they temporarily escape from the responsibilities and pressures of real life.  That is part of the beauty of them. 

 

However, invitations and plans made during these altered states run the risk of never being realized once real life sets back in.  Konrad and I shook hands as we departed the plane - he continued on to Germany and I caught a connecting flight to Copenhagen.  


Fast-forward 1 year to our family living in Ireland

Over the next year as I continued to experiment with my own various bone broth recipes at home and I began to realize what an important component it would make to the Eastern Shore Food Lab.  I never forgot Konrad’s invitation and included it on every draft of what I wanted to accomplish through the Food Evolutions Project during my sabbatical.    Nine months after our original meeting I sent an email to Konrad to reestablish contact and inquired whether or not his offer still stood.  His reply was an empathic, “Yes!” and we started planning a visit.

I had contacted him in the fall and he was in the midst of getting ready for the winter season - certainly the busiest time of year for piping hot, nutrient-dense bone broth.  However, between opening up several new seasonal pop-up bone broth outlets in locations such as Berlin, Hamburg and Vienna, and even appearing on German television show, Cave of Lions (the German version of Shark Tank) he found time to communicate with me and schedule an amazing day for us in Berlin that allowed me to accomplish everything I was looking to do in the visit.

Ryan Air

My friend and colleague, Jason O’Brien, joined my family and I for the trip.  Jason’s interest in connecting people with their heritage and health through food with his company, Odaios Foods, certainly got him excited about visiting Konrad and seeing what he is doing with bone broth.  So, the six of us caught a super cheap RyanAir flight to Berlin and met Konrad at their store and office at Urban Health on Goethestraße to begin our whirlwind day.  Here we met Konrad’s friend and business partner, Jin Woo-Bae, and toured the very place where Brox started.  We saw the rooms where they saw patients and the small kitchen where they cooked the bone broth to nourish them.  We saw the room where they came up with the idea for the business. We learned how this labor of love was connected to his entire family.  It just so happens that Konrad’s parents are both incredibly talented artists and, in addition to the various artwork they created that is located throughout all of the twists and turns of his office, they have applied their talents to help with advertising initiatives.  His mother even designed the incredible cardboard cow that holds six jars of the broth complete with a handle on top.  In fact, everyone around Konrad and Jin seem to be dedicated to making sure this initiative is successful which speaks volumes to how much everyone believes in what they are doing.  It was here in the office that I began to ask the barrage of questions that have been compiling since I first met Konrad.  And, they even though my questions continued all day he answered each and every one of them patiently. 

Bill, Jason, Konrad and Jin with Brox Broth in the cardboard cow carrier

Bill, Jason, Konrad and Jin with Brox Broth in the cardboard cow carrier


Off on a Fermentation Adventure Around Berlin

Getting pretzels

We left his office and were off to the next stop on our whirlwind tour – to see one of the most important fermenters in Germany, Markus Shimizu.  To get there, Konrad arranged for us to take the Number 100 bus so that we would be able to have a short “sightseeing” tour of some of the important spots in Berlin, including the Bundeskanzleramt, or the German “White House” which houses chancellor, Angela Merkel.  And, of course, we made sure to sit on the top level of the bus to get the best view!

In front of the German Government building

Right at home with the bubbling jars

When we entered the home of Markus Skimizu of Mimi ferments there was an instant connection.  I recognized the fermenting vessels of all shapes and sizes that adorned the various rooms in the house.  I recognized the overflowing industrial fridge that contained bottles of his completed ferments.  And, I recognized the passion he has for what he is doing.  Different ferments, but the same set up as that which exists in my home.

 

Bubbling jars
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Even though they were preparing for a children’s birthday party that was to take place in their house in a few hours, Markus dropped everything he was doing to give us a full blown tour of a sort of fermentation for which I know very little about – soy sauce, koji, miso, natto and tempeh.  Over the course of the next hour he showed us how he is relying upon traditional fermentation strategies that not only transform the taste and texture of foods but also the nutrient content, quality and density of foods.  It was all fascinating, and, most importantly, he does not restrict himself to solely using traditional raw ingredients.  Instead, he experiments with applying these transformative food processing strategies to a variety of local, European, local ingredients.  And, we got to taste it all!  We tried scores of different soy sauces made from ingredients that ranged from egg whites to naked barley. 

 

The guys!
 
 

It is an understatement to say that we left Markus inspired to experiment with not only new forms of fermentation but also with the application of tradition techniques on all sorts of new ingredients.

 
 
Soy Sauces

Time to Taste the Broth!

Store

The next stop on our whirlwind food tour of Berlin the was Konrad and Jin’s own pop-up store in Berlin.  This Brox pop-up was located in a closed down seasonal ice cream parlor that instead of cold ice-cream served warm, delicious, nutrient-dense broth in 100% compostable cups in the winter – it was brilliant!  Their menu was simple – the pop up offered three different broths (beef made from the bones of organic, grass-fed cows; chicken made from organic, free-range chickens; or organic, vegan-friendly mushroom) each served in two different ways.  Konrad prepared each and every one for us to sample.  They were all delicious and, perhaps what surprised me the most, also beautiful! 

 

Broth
Broth
broth
veggie broth

They have realized that modern diners have modern expectations of taste, texture and presentation and when they developed their menu took the time to not only create incredible recipes that adhere to their strict ethical principles, but also paid attention to presentation.  Also realizing the nutritional and sustainable aspects of entomophagy (insect consumption) there is the option to include a grasshopper with your cup of broth!  We tasted all of the offering and, while each of us had our favorites, we certainly enjoyed them all!  The feeling we all had after drinking their broth was intensely satisfying, yet not overpowering at the same time. 

Certainly, drinking something warm on a cold winter day as we traipsed around Berlin would comfort anyone.  But, there was something more. The level of taste and presentation that they achieved as a result of their intensive development was amazing.  But it was also the thought that went into all of it – the signage detailing why bone broth is important to human health and their strict adherence to the guiding principles that got them started down this road in the first place are simultaneously comforting and connective.  Who could imagine that drinking a cup of bone broth in a compostable paper cup in a closed down ice cream parlor could be so meaningful?  Well, it was.

 
The Schindlers with Konrad
Jason, Konrad and Bill with "thank you" presents of Old Bay from Maryland and Whiskey from Ireland!

Jason, Konrad and Bill with "thank you" presents of Old Bay from Maryland and Whiskey from Ireland!


Next Fermentation Stop - A Brewery!

BRLO

We left the Brox pop-up with our bellies and souls satiated to head off to our last stop – BRLO Brewhouse (www.brlo.de ).  BRLO is housed in a container complex made almost entirely of shipping containers!  It can be relatively easily assembled, taken down, and re-assembled.  Given BRLO is a temporary pop-up designed to last between 3-5 years, this style of construction was a perfect solution.  Germany has both incredible beers and a rich beer tradition; however, the microbrew phenomenon that I am used to in the United States is in its infancy here in Germany.  That makes BRLO even more unique!  BRLO is the Slavic origin of the name Berlin and this pop-up is the result of a cooperative effort between brewers, Katharina, Christian and Michael, who are contributing their innovation to the German craft beer movement and, head chef, Ben Pommer who is working hard to re-envision brewpub food. 

We were all taken on a tour of the brewery which began with a description of the philosophies of both the brewery and the restaurant.  Throughout the tour we were engaged with all of our senses that included the sweet smell of the wort, the feel of the hot steam eminating from the tanks, and the taste of the various types of barley’s that go into their beers.  The tour ended with each of us filling glasses of beer directly from their fermentation tanks!  Later, Chef Ben worked miracles and moved mountains to find us a table in his adjacent busy restaurant.  Over the course of the next hour and a half we experienced everything that BRLO Brewhouse stands for by literally tasting their philosophies through the beer and food that comprised our meal.

Fresh pour
Pouring his own beer
BRLO

Konrad had truly organized for us an amazing day filled with meeting passionate people doing inspiring things with food!

Broth

We all learned so much.  Throughout the day, I asked Konrad about how he got started, and specific questions about his recipes, and about the nutritional benefits of bone broth.  I learned so much from Konrad about how to turn what you believe in into something that can bring pleasure and health to others.   I learned what it looks like to brilliantly transform something as ancient and basic as bone broth into something that both tastes and looks incredible.  I also learned some of the finer points of how to make bone broth healthy, nutritious, and desirable.  Their focus at Brox is on a producing a high quality, nutrient dense product.  Each and every step they take in the production of their broth is focused on creating the most nutrient dense product possible.  At Bone Brox they use only bones from the finest organic, free-range animals raised by farmers they know. They break up the bones into small pieces to increase the surface area so that they can release the maximum amount of nutrients more easily.  They roast the bones first  (for the flavor), and then they put them into cold water with some apple vinegar before they make the stock to further help aid in the release of minerals in the water.  And, they use a special filter for the water that helps return it to as close to its original state as possible which prepares it to carry the maximum amount of nutrients.  The final step in their quest for nutrient dense broth is to simmer the bones for a minimum of 18 hours to extract to most amount of minerals, collagen and flavor.  They don’t add the vegetables until the end of the process to avoid introducing undue bitterness.  This illustrates how every decision they have made, each and every step of the process, was to create the most amazing, nutrient dense product possible.  They do not cut corners for the sake of saving money.  The cornerstone of their business is to create something they can stand behind. 

Iceland Cheesemaking

Each and every step of their process is entirely accessible to the home chef.  It is empowering to know that every one of us can seek out bones from high quality animals and create an amazing product by following the same steps, in our stock pots, on our stovetops.  It is comforting to know, however, that for those of us that do not have the time or desire to make our own bone broth, we can support people like Konrad and Jin by purchasing high-quality, nutrient dense foods done properly.  An informed consumer is a powerful force.

Food is so incredibly connected to every aspect of life – from the physical and biological (health, diet, disease, sustainability) to the cultural (tradition, politics, religion, ethical, connection, addiction, financial) – that is why a true conversation about food is so incredibly difficult to have.  However, when you can find common ground in a genuine conversation about food it is intense and meaningful and conveys so many other important aspects of who we are and how we view the world.  A meaningful conversation about food provided the opportunity for Konrad and I to first meet and, also provided the backdrop that created the opportunity to bring my family and Jason to meet Konrad in Berlin.  It also allowed Konrad to make the contacts he has made with community of people in Berlin that are changing the food scene in Berlin. 

The saying is so true: Food Is Life. 

But it is even more true here – food is engrained in all aspects of life.  And when you can really connect through food, even through something as basic as bone broth – the possibilities are limitless!  

Talk to that stranger next to you – just make sure it is a meaningful conversation.  And, why not make it about food…

Berlin Sign