Once a year for the past five or six years I have visited French friends who live in Saint-Sulpice-sur-Tarn, a small village in the south of France that has several good bakeries and butcher shops. The first full day in the village I usually wander down to the boulangerie and then stroll to the boucherie around the corner from where I stay for a couple of weeks. I return to my friends with warm croissants, thinly sliced ham, several different pâtés, and perhaps a duck or two to barbecue on the open patio. Jean Francois and Virginie are always amazed at my lavish purchases; after all they go to the same boucherie and boulangerie every day and think nothing of it, while I am swept away.
Until very recently there hasn’t been any place remotely like that French butcher shop in all of Northern California. Fact is, I don’t like the slaughterhouse smells in many of the meat departments in the larger food stores even when the meat is refrigerated. So I avoid them, if I can. The meat often doesn’t look appetizing and the butchers handle it as though it was offal.
Now there is a French-like boucherie close to home, which means that I don’t have to travel to Saint-Sulpice to enjoy the delicacies that I crave, including alanza, which is made from pork, plus duck rillet and duck pate. Sometimes I feel that I have an addiction to pâté, though a little bit goes a long way and satisfies me without gorging.
The name of the butcher shop that provides these wonders is Thistle Meats and it doesn’t smell anything remotely like a slaughterhouse, though freshly slaughtered animals are carved up by expert butchers everyday and then turned into attractive chops, ribs, steaks, roasts and much more.
Thistle is owned by a young, ambitious, and very agréable (as the French would say) woman named Molly Best who grew up in Petaluma and who aims to make her shop as good if not better than her own name suggests.
I’ve been to Thistle twice, the first time by myself, the second time with Karen Preuss, the professional photographer, who belongs, as I do, to the Slow Food Russian River chapter.
I knew I was in the right place on my first visit. That same feeling was confirmed on the second visit. Both times I took food home with me and enjoyed it for days. Right now, I’m barbecuing a pork butt, bone in, that I bought a few days ago and that Molly Best suggested I double-wrap in aluminum foil and cook for three hours with fresh herbs and garlic.
On the first visit to Thistle I tasted mortadella, rabbit rillet and rabbit terrine. I’m partial to rabbit. Now, when I think of Thistle a memory of those tastes comes back to me.
I’d like to go back for the Thistle Melt, a sandwich on house-made focaccia with cheddar, mustard greens, bread-and-butter pickles, Dijon mustard prepared by Jeb Kida, a sandwich master, who spreads an aioli with olive oil, garlic, lemon juice and egg yokes. I’m sure that my French friends from Saint-Sulpice would also want to try the Thistle Melt.
On June 1, when I visited the shop with Karen Preuss, Aaron Gilliam and Liam Watson were busy at work: trimming fat, keeping records, and testing the sausages and salamis to see if they were maturing properly. Customers can watch them at their craft.
At Thistle, everything is transparent and everything takes expertise and precision. Watching Gilliam, Watson and Kida is a delight. For the record, I should like to say that Mark Twain — who insisted, “Those that respect the law and love sausage should watch neither being made” — didn’t know about Molly Best’s shop. I observed the making of sausages at Thistle and know that they were made with carefulness, cleanliness and fairness.
On my most recent visit, two cauldrons with beef bones simmered away in the kitchen to make beef stock. In the walk-in cooler at the back of the shop, a whole freshly slaughtered lamb and beef shoulder were, well, hanging out.
Everyone at Thistle has a job, a mission, and a time frame. Everything is so new that nothing has become routine.
“We’re still in flux,” Best tells me. “Everything is not dialed in.” She does her very best to keep everyone happy – the customers as well as the crew and has fun in the process.
Born and raised in Petaluma, she traveled to France with her mother when she was fifteen-years-old. That was fifteen-years-ago.
“My Ah moments with food were all in France,” Best says. “My mother and I connected to the culture there through the cooking.”
When she came home she worked for a cheese monger in Santa Rosa, raised sheep and slaughtered them in her own basement. She got married and had children, then learned heaps about charcuterie, salumerie and wurst from a neighbor and famed author named Francois Vecchio who shares his culinary and kitchen wisdom in a book and a video available on-line.
“I suppose you could say we have a philosophy at Thistle though we don’t broadcast it,” Best explains. “We use the whole animal and we throw almost nothing away. Everything we do we do slowly, deliberately, steadily. Nothing here happens fast. I think our customers appreciate the slowness and the deliberateness with which we approach the craft of charcuterie and butchering. People want transparency, honesty and an authentic connection. That’s what they get here.”
Now, I don’t have to fly to France to enjoy French-style pâtés, terrines and rillettes, or travel to Italy to taste extraordinary Italian-style salamis. Thistle Meats is a rare treat indeed. Molly Best and her crew are local treasures worth preserving.
Jonah Raskin is a member of Slow Food Russian River and the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine in California.