There is certainly enough local meat being raised in Maine to go around. The problem is that most of it leaves the state to be processed.

Analysts with the Reinvestment Fund, a public-policy driven lending institution based in Baltimore, presented findings of a recent study geared toward optimizing the state’s red meat supply chain to a packed house at the More Maine Meat Workshop held at the 76th Annual Maine Agriculture Trade Show in Augusta earlier in January. The bottleneck to getting more sustainable red meat on the menu in Maine is a shortage of meat-cutting facilities and butchering talent that can efficiently bring local beef, pork and lamb from the pasture to the plate here.

In the study, demand for local meat was based on USDA sales numbers. Supply was based on data pulled from a Dun & Bradstreet business registration of local farms. Researchers noted that supply was likely underestimated as many smaller farms are not included in those numbers. But even with the lowball estimate on the supply side, researchers found that the existing meat-processing facilities in Maine today can process only a third of the animals that local farmers can raise.

Ingredients for Christine Burns Rudalevige's Beef and Ale Pie.

Beef and Ale Pie is made with stewed beef and mushrooms. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

This statistic was not a surprise to the dozens of farmers in the room that day. The shortage of first-stage processors (ones that slaughter animals in certified facilities and butcher them into large primal cuts that then get shuttled off to second-stage processors that break them down into the steaks, chops and ground meat we buy) is a reality they’ve been working around for years. They do so by booking slaughter dates six months in advance at the dwindling number of Maine processing facilities or trucking their animals out of state to get the job done at an added cost to producers and the environment with no guarantee that the processed meat will make it back to Maine eaters. Having to transport the animals long distances causes them stress and gives farmers who care about how their animals die less control over their demise.

The study gave five potential locations (Chapman, Monmouth, Troy, Windham and Port Clyde) where additional Stage 1 meat-processing facilities could be located to, theoretically, relieve the bottleneck.

“But with the margins on meat processing so tight, you’d have to almost guarantee even more demand to have the cost of the new plants be feasible,” said Barry Higgins of Maple Lanes Farms, a beef producer and operator of a custom meat-processing facility in Charleston.

Christine Burns Rudalevige's Beef and Ale Pie.

The finished product, Christine Burns Rudalevige’s Beef and Ale Pie. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Farmer Nanne Kennedy of Meadowcroft Farm, a board member of the Maine Sustainable Agriculture Society, said her group is working to build a brand that could certify that meat came from an animal that was born, raised and processed in the state. “Consumers want a guarantee they are in fact getting the local meat they believe they are paying for,” Kennedy said. She is working on a grant proposal for a pilot program that would use low-frequency RFID tags (which are attached to the animal’s ear and store information about birth, pedigree and location that can then be read electronically) to track and verify where an animal was reared throughout its lifetime. She anticipates the pilot would start this summer and is looking for farmers to participate.

If consumers are intent on buying more Maine meat, the industry must also address the need for more trained meat cutters, Higgins said. Filling these physically demanding jobs, which according to U.S. Department of Labor statistics pay between $14.90 and $16.30 per hour in Maine, is a constant struggle, Higgins said.

The ingredients for Beef and Ale Pie

The ingredients are all ready for making the Beef and Ale Pie. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Dr. Richard Brzozowski, food systems specialist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, stepped up to say the extension would hold a weeklong meat-cutting school in late April and would work with existing processors to tailor the curriculum to their needs. He was peppered with ideas ranging from preparation of hides to charcuterie food safety plans.

If the farmers, processors and food systems specialists have their way, more Maine meat will be available. It’s our job to try it – and keep on buying it – to support the systems needed for that part of the local agricultural system to thrive.

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, a recipe developer and tester and a cooking teacher in Brunswick. Contact her at: [email protected]

 

Christine Burns Rudalevige cooks the beef for her Beef and Ale Pie.

Christine Burns Rudalevige cooks the beef for her Beef and Ale Pie. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

BEEF AND ALE PIE

This recipe is a labor of love, but it is also one that keeps on giving. The stew should be made ahead and cooled before it gets baked into the pie. The amount of gravy it makes cannot go into the pie as that would risk a soggy bottom.  Reserving a good portion of the gravy means you can serve it with bangers (sausages) and mash later in the week.

Serves 6, plus makes gravy for a future meal

FOR THE BEEF:

1 ounce dried wild mushrooms

11/2 pounds of braising beef (buy whole piece and cut into 1-inch pieces)

Salt and pepper

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

2 large onions, roughly chopped

4 large carrots, chopped into large chunks

2 parsnips, chopped into large chunks

2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons sugar

11/2 cups dark ale

11/2 cups beef stock

4 sprigs thyme

4 parsley stems

1 bay leaf

1/4 cup chopped smoky bacon

1 pound fresh button mushrooms, quartered

FOR THE CRUST:

21/2 cups all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces

1/2 cup lard or bacon fat, frozen and cut into pieces

5-6 tablespoons ice water

1 egg yolk, beaten, to glaze

To make the beef, place the dried mushrooms in a large measuring cup and cover them with 11/2 cups boiling water. Set aside for 20 minutes. Strain the mushrooms, reserving the mushrooms and soaking liquid separately.

Season the meat well with salt and pepper. Melt the butter with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a large Dutch oven over medium high heat. Working in batches to avoid crowding the pan and steaming the meat, brown the cubes of meat, then remove them to a bowl using a slotted spoon. In the fat remaining in the pan, add the onions, carrots, parsnips and garlic. Turn the heat down to medium and sauté until the vegetables soften, 5-6 minutes. Add the rehydrated mushrooms, stir and cook for 1 minute. Sprinkle the flour and sugar over the vegetables, stirring until the flour turns brown, 2-3 minutes. Return the meat, and any juices that have accumulated in the bowl, to the Dutch oven. Stir to combine. Add the ale, stock and mushroom soaking liquid, discarding the last few drops, which may contain grit.

Tie together the thyme sprigs, parsley stems and bay leaf with kitchen twine. Tuck the herbs into the stew and bring it to a simmer. Cover with a lid and continue to simmer on low heat until meat is tender, about 2 hours.

While the stew is cooking, heat remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a skillet. Add the bacon and cook until the pieces are crisp, about 3 minutes. Turn up the heat, add the fresh mushrooms and cook until golden, about 4 minutes. Remove from the heat and, when the stew is cooked, stir in the bacon-mushroom mixture.

Remove herbs from the pot. Cool stew completely.

To make the pastry, mix the flour, salt and pepper together in a medium-sized bowl. Using your fingers or a fork, cut fat into the dry ingredients until the coated fat is roughly the size of peas. Add enough ice water to make a soft dough. Knead the pastry lightly, and divide it into 2 disks, 1 about 1/3 larger than the other. Wrap and let disks rest in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour. The pastry can be made up to 2 days ahead and kept in the refrigerator or frozen for up to 1 month.

When you are ready to make the pie, heat the oven to 425 degrees F and place a flat baking tray in the oven. Grease a 9-inch pie dish and dust well with flour. Roll out the larger disk of pastry into a 1/4-inch thick round that will easily line the pie dish and have an overhang. Line the pie dish with it. Add the cool beef stew to the dish using a slotted spoon so that most of the gravy is left behind in the container. The filling will be slightly higher than the rim of the dish.

Roll out the remaining pastry disk into a circle big enough to cover the pie dish. Brush the edges of the bottom crust with egg yolk, then cover with the pastry lid. Trim the edges, crimp them together, then re-roll your trimmings to make a decoration, if you like. Make a few little slits in the center of the pie to allow air to vent, brush the top of the pie with egg yolk, place the pie on the hot baking tray, then bake for 40-50 minutes until golden.

Let the pie rest for 10 minutes before slicing and serving. Serve warm with some of the reserved gravy.

 

 

 

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