Whole Hog with Thistle Meats

Brie Mazurek, CUESA Staff
March 6, 2015

For Women’s History Month, CUESA is spotlighting women who are transforming our food system. This week we introduce our newest Ferry Plaza Farmers Market vendor, Thistle Meats.

“You put meat and men together, and it’s sausage jokes all day long,” says Molly Best, owner of the Petaluma-based butcher and charcuterie shop Thistle Meats. “That gets old!”

Best, 30, is part of a new generation of women who are leveling the playing field in an industry dominated by men, from the ranch to the deli counter. Her one-year-old meat mecca takes its place among other Bay Area businesses with women at the helm, such as Avedano’s Meats, Belcampo Meat Co., and Fatted Calf.

“I think it’s important to have women in this field to bring that sensibility to a male-dominated profession,” she says. “But women can be macho, too. For me, it’s less about making the meat world more ‘feminine,’ and more about finding a balance. There’s yin and yang. We all have that.”

An Edible Education

Growing up in the agricultural heartland of Petaluma with a mother who owned a café-restaurant, Best always felt a strong connection nature, farming, and food craft.

After high school, she apprenticed with artisan cheese maker Soyoung Scanlan of Andante Dairy. She developed a love for cheese making but found herself called to animal husbandry, so she began raising sheep and selling lamb at farmers markets. While balancing her duties as a young mother, she immersed herself in learning about all aspects of raising, slaughtering, and butchering her animals. “I’d drive out to the processing facility at 6:00 in the morning and process the sheep,” she recalls.

She furthered her education working with Tom Mazzoni of Panizzera Meat Co. and mentoring with legendary salumiere, charcutier, and wurstmeister Francois Vecchio. “Meeting these men with their stories, old-world craft, and passion for this dying art, I became attracted to that world. I felt there was a need for that.”

Her vision was to open a full-service butcher shop specializing in ethically sourced meats. When a space became available in downtown Petaluma two years ago, she jumped at the opportunity.

Using the Whole Animal

The Thistle Meats shop embodies the old-fashioned butcher shop of yesteryear, all gleaming white and polished metal. The counter is loaded with custom cuts of locally raised grass-fed and pasture-raised meats (beef, pork, lamb, goat, duck, rabbit), along with house-made sausages, pâtés, terrines, salumi, and stocks.

Thistle Meats sources from about a dozen local ranches that maintain a commitment to sustainable and humane husbandry, including Stemple Creek Ranch, True Grass Farms, and Macgruder Ranch. Best works with whole animals, and her employees visit the farms and have close relationships with the ranchers.

“Waste not, want not” is a guiding philosophy at Thistle Meats, which means utilizing every last bit of each animal and bringing transparency to that process. “We’re trying to make using whole animals work on an economic level, which is a challenge,” says Best. “We believe that not having any waste benefits the land and the farmer.”

Beef proves the most challenging, because it is such a large animal. Beyond using the last bits in bologna and stocks, the shop makes beef tallow (rendered fat) candles and sells tallow to local soap and salve makers.

In managing the business, Best spends less time making crepinettes and more time in front of a computer than she’d like to these days, but she has a strong crew to make the magic happen, including butcher Kent Schoberle (formerly of 4505 Meats), salumist Aaron Gilliam (previously at Fatted Calf), and chef and charcutier John Harley Richter of Harley Richter Meats.

Common Goals

Serving as a hub for many of the producers who have mentored and inspired Best, the Thistle shop also carries products from local food crafters and farmers, such as Andante Dairy, Green String Farm, June Taylor Company, and Saint Benoît Creamery.

Kathleen Weber of Della Fattoria, whose café-bakery is just across the street, has also been one of Best’s many mentors in running her own business. “It’s a very simpatico relationship,” says Weber. “We share common goals, we want to do the best, and we want to figure out a way to survive and thrive.”

To help educate the next generation in the lost arts of meat butchery and preservation, the shop offers classes in everything from meat cooking basics to whole hog butchery. “That’s what we’re trying to do at Thistle: preserve a craft that was once supported and is now struggling,” says Best.

Best admits that whole-animal butchery is a difficult business model in a world accustomed to cheap industrially raised meat and shielded from the processes that get it to the butcher counter, but she has hope. “It’s hard work, but there’s faith in knowing that if you do good things, if you work hard and work smart, and if you’re doing something honest, people will respond to that,” she says.

Thistle Meats sells cuts of meat, charcuterie, and salumi at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in the south driveway on Saturdays.

Molly Best portrait by Daniel Dent. Sausage and crew photos by Murray Rockowitz.

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