Tiny food business are tucked in the mountainous ridges of the northern tip of the Catskills. These hardscrabble pastures and high meadows were once the heart of New York’s dairy industry and today are home to flocks of heritage breed bred birds, herds of beef, goats, and a growing number of visionary food entrepreneurs with sights set on revitalizing the region’s soil, productivity and economy.
It was only a matter of time until Tim Lippert and Nicole E. Day Gray made common cause. Lippert, a walking contradiction and indefatigable farmer bent on saving a heritage farm in Rensselaerville, NY, rescues heritage oxen, has built a sanctuary for Yaks and raises, processes and sells Tamworth and Old Spot pigs. Day Gray is the founder of Agriforaging, a traveling university of meat processing which bridges the gap between farming and the complex world of food safety. Last month, they teamed up to offer master instruction in pig butchery followed by an old fashioned pig roast. Lippert, a former chef, was ‘cue master.
We arrived early on a thick, foggy day in order to lend a hand feeding the “money pigs,” his retail stock that roam fettered only but fences through pasture and woods. Along the way, we stopped the check the Yaks. Swinging open the gate to a large paddock, Tim talks about the group of Buddhist monks who are saving yaks from slaughter by supporting the animals in a life of luxury – meals, water, safety from natural and commercial predators. Slowly, they emerge, one by one, thirty of them. For a single Instagram moment, it was the Himalayas in the Catskills.
As we continued on to find the pigs, the Yak’s protector talked about the 135 pound Tamworth he had already set to roast and smoke in in a giant cooker. The duality is mind blowing, I note, pigs for sale roam the fields to one side of his old farmhouse, Yak’s roam a spa-like setting on the other. Below, are two teams of miniature oxen he rescued in Vermont.
“It pays the bills,” said Lippert.
He also said that the monks had recently upped their fee for his stewardship making it possible to reduce the size of his commercial operation.
“They believe that all life is sacred. I remember when they first came to visit, we talked for a while in my kitchen and then went outside. One said that he had to return to the house. Quite some time passed and I walked back to make sure he was ok and there he was, picking live flies off one of those sticky fly strips we had hanging in the kitchen.” Unlike the Yaks’ benefactor, monks.
Lippert is an unabashed carnivore. “I’m obsessed with the humane handling of animals, but I have no trouble raising them beautifully to sell.” He said, sniffing the air. “that pig skin is going to be mahogany crackle by 6 p.m. he said. Paying guests and the students that the Gray Day’s Agriforaging group had brought for the buthery class would also be treated to local hard cider, fresh rolls, farm made slaw, pickles and an addictively rich blueberry buckle. A classic, single layer cake with streusel topping. But Lippert can’t restrain himself. He’s serving the cake with a dollop of fresh local goat cheese and a shower of cinnamon.
The Master class was in full swing by the time we’d finished the rounds, I slipped into the barn where Eric Shelley was gently outlining primal cuts on a hog carcass. For the next four hours, I learned more about ethical animal treatment and artful butchery than I imagined possible.
Digging into my first juicy slice of barbecued pig, I seemed to appreciate the care, knowledge and concern than goes into creating an animal so delicious. The scent of a distant cousin getting cooked did not appear to disturbed the yaks. They did’ however, seem to wonder why they had not been invited down from their sanctuary to take their places at the table.
Sara Martinez is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of the Americas. She was born in Venezuela and is now living in South Florida with her five boys and husband. She enjoys exploring different cultures through food and the people who produce it.