Category - People

Me, Murray, and The Royal (or why you should spend your money in your backyard)

Lisa was my Head Butcher for a year. She proved herself worthy of this role after working hard for us at the little shop, being awesome with customers, learning a ton, and hustling her butt off. Originally from the Guelph area, she left to go work on a farm for a season in between jobs with me, and it was during that time where she really went to school, learning what it takes to raise hogs and keep a sustainable farm working. She also learned a great new word, one that she applied to me (in good fun) one day when I was teasing her about being from the country.

Cidiot.

This portmanteau of city and idiot had me laughing then, but recently I realized that city-folk actually live up to that name from time to time. I have many friends and family who live outside of Toronto in small communities, but I am through and through a Torontonian. I wear corduroy jackets with leather patches on my shoulders. I will spend $15 on a cocktail. I like brunch (although to be fair I don’t go out for it that much anymore). I am a stereotypical cidiot, but I support farmers with my shop and my food, so I like to think they accept me. I really felt this last week when I was at the Royal.

The Royal Agricultural Winter Fair is an annual event held on the Exhibition grounds since 1922. It was started as a way to help improve all domestic animal breeds and establish national judging standards for breeders throughout Ontario. The Royal is a huge event that combines horse shows, specialty foods from all over the province, and of course the agricultural competitions. One of my suppliers and friend Greg Nolan of Artisan Farms invited me to the Queen’s Guineas, which is a exhibition geared towards young competitors from their local 4-H. Young farmers from all over Ontario show off the steers they’ve been raising with care since birth, hoping to win the title of Grand Champion. Along with the prestige of the title and a cash reward, the exhibitors then get to auction off their animals to the highest bidder. The champions sell for quite a bit over market value, but it is an opportunity for the buyers to directly support the local industry as well as the next generation of farmers. The buyers are usually the larger meat packers, the guys who have been involved with the community for decades. And then this cidiot stepped in the ring.

I didn’t know what I was doing at all, so I started to do what I always do in that situation – keep to myself and act like I’ve done this a million times. Then Greg bought me a beer and introduced me to a couple of people. I asked him what the average price is per pound for the live animals. He said it depends, but that usually he tries to keep the bidding going by placing false bids. He does this to ignite the buyers, but it sometimes doesn’t work. He usually buys a lot of beef every year. One woman he introduced me to thanked him for supporting the show, because (in her words) “god knows no one else effing supports us”. She didn’t actually say “effing”, but the much stronger word, which made me ask her what she meant. She feels, like many others, that the agricultural community is talked about in Toronto by chefs, restaurateurs, foodies, and whatnot as being “vital” to the community but at the end of the day people are still not putting their money where their mouths are. Beef from PEI, Alberta, and the States still dominate our markets and fruit and vegetables from Central and South America sell way more than local produce. “It’s a joke”, she finished.

That fired me up. That and half a beer (I’m a bit of a light-weight these days). So I was determined to buy an animal. I stood at the back of the live auction. The first animal they brought out was the Grand Champion. “Last Chance”, raised by Sylvia Megens, was a beautiful animal; all fluffed hide aided by a sprinkling of glitter, and was swiftly purchased after a flurry of bids. I knew I couldn’t afford Last Chance, but I was willing to try for the Reserve Champion. Here is what I learned about bidding in a live auction.

   1. Know your limit before you start. I didn’t.

   2. Don’t start nodding your head as a way to accept a higher bid. I did and realized that shaking my head        “no” looked the same, as in “no way, Meghan’s going to kill me when she sees what I’ve done with the          company credit card.” The bid went up.

   3. When they ask you whom you’re buying for, don’t say your first name. It doesn’t mean anything to              them. They’re just asking for a company name.

   4. When everyone is looking at who thinking “who the cuss is this guy?”, just look straight ahead and                shake the farmer’s hand. Avoid stepping in cow shit.

   5. When you tell your wife/business partner how much you spent, maybe wait until she’s asleep. It                  would have gone over better.

So what ended up happening is I purchased the Queen’s Guineas Reserve Champion at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair from (16 year old) Jarrett Hargraves of Proton Station. Murray is a gorgeous animal, and I can’t wait to get him into the shop. We will be dry ageing the loins in time for Christmas, and everything else will be sold at slightly –more-than-market value. He is a Reserve Champion after all.

The moral of the story is to support your farmers. Go to the Fair. Ask questions. Meet people who have been working since they were eight years old (while you were playing Super Mario). But most importantly spend money. You don’t want to be known as a cidiot forever.

Farm Visit - Murray’s Heritage Pigs

Hi Murray!

I was wondering if Brian and I could come up sometime and visit the farm? I'd love to see your operation first hand!

Thanks, 
Peter

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Yeah man....let me know when....did you want to go over to Dwayne’s as well?  I get the lawn cut on fridays....so don’t come on thursdays!  Haha

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And so Brian and I made the plan to go up to visit Murray Thunberg’s farm last Friday. Like any day I decide to leave the city, there were problems at the shop; someone went home sick so we were short staffed, plus one of our sausage machines went down. I knew Chris and the rest of the butchers could take care of everything, but I hate leaving when there’s even an inkling that they could be in the juice. But I had also put off visiting Murray’s farm for too long. So we escaped, heading east through the rain to see some pigs.

The highway turned to side roads, turning eventually to dirt roads. We made a right onto Murray’s drive, and were inspected by a mob of sheep that were giving us cut-eye from behind their wire barrier. The drive gave way to a nice country house, with a very well mowed lawn. Stepping out of the car, we were welcomed by three dogs, each jumping and clamoring for our attention. The air had that post-rain smell, mixed with the scent of animal husbandry. Murray came out of the house and shook our hands. “You made it!”

Murray took over the farm a few years back and spent the time cultivating both the land and relationships with chefs, butchers, and his customers at the farmers markets. His original specialties were eggs laid by heritage species of chickens – his cartons are a rainbow of different specimens, all delicious and unique. He soon began raising heritage breeds of pigs with his friend Dwayne. Money was tight, so he built the pig houses using plywood from the dump and filling them with straw, allowing for comfortable farrowing. What he lacked in money though he made up for with passion and space – these animals had more open space to run, eat, and wallow than most urban condo dwellers. I could tell how well cared for these animals were as I walked amongst them, scratching them behind the ears. One boar kept rubbing up against my leg like a cat would, which sounds super cute until you realize that the hog is 750 lbs and almost flipped me like a rag doll. “He likes you!” Murray laughed as I steadied myself and quickly got out of the way. Brian intelligently stood back the whole time, just taking it in. Murray told us about the different pigs; he is trying to carry some of the lesser-known breeds such as Hereford and Auld Spot. His latest passion is bringing Saddlebacks in from the States – they’re in quarantine right now. It’s all a project to protect these lines of pigs from disappearing, and this is exactly the type of thing we support at the shop. As a total side benefit – they taste amazing.

Heritage pork has a much more robust flavour than commodity pork, which is insipid in comparison. It has more fat, due to age and natural breed characteristics, which is used for sausages and is excellent in charcuterie. The uncontested agreement around the shop is the heritage pork – Murray’s especially – are some of the tastiest grilling chops we’ve ever had. The sausages we make with the meat are the juiciest, and the shoulder has the darkest, most rich meat. Heritage pork is a little bit more expensive than traditional pork, but given its upbringing, it’s a small price to pay. We support what Murray does, and we hope that you do too. And who knows, eventually we might see this type of pork in your local grocery store. I love that people come to our little butcher shop for all the good stuff, but guys like Murray really need more exposure so people in all corners of the province have access to their wonderful offerings. Fingers crossed that when I'm all old and grey (er), my grandkids will see heritage pork bacon in their school cafeteria.