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A cut above

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Brianna Hagell, Vessel meats. Photo: Submitted

Brianna Hagell, Vessel meats. Photo: Submitted

Brianna Hagell wants to help people better understand their food and get more bang for their buck.

Capicola, Toro, Bavette and Little Pear are not your average supermarket cuts of meat. They’re cuts that require the art of a butcher’s handicraft — that’s one of the reasons why Brianna Hagell started Vessel Meats.

The old-school version we have in our heads of the neighbourhood butcher is a burly man in a navy blue, blood-stained apron. Hagel defies that image. She’s a feisty 5’6” ball of energy, with hair in plaited pigtails underneath a black toque, who can single-handedly lift a carcass and wield a cleaver along with the best of them.

At Vessel Meats on Primrose Street in Dartmouth, N.S., on a Wednesday morning, there’s vigorous activity as Hagell and her two workers cut and pack meat for orders that need to leave that morning.

Behind the ‘50s-style glass meat counter are rows of beautifully displayed cuts. Five-centimetre-thick pork chops with that elusive but essential layer of fat still intact. Marbled hanger steaks, impossible-to-find teres major, a grainy bavette, and rows of spiced sausages. Handwritten lists on the whiteboard itemize 22 beef and 14 pork cuts on offer.

The freezer holds tubs of bone stock, rendered and whipped lard, an assortment of ready meals, dog bones, and fresh chewies. Vessel meats is a nose-to-tail, whole carcass butcher, meaning there is little waste and they try to use every animal part.

“I come from a long line of stubborn women,” says Hagell. “When someone tells me something can’t be done or it will never work, I go out of my way to prove them wrong.”

She walked away from a well-paying job in human resources to pursue her passion.

“I knew I wanted to work with food, but I didn’t want to be a chef,” she says. “The hours are too grueling, and the environment often toxic. So, I started working at the farmer’s market selling fruit and vegetables for Noggins Farm.”

While doing that, she connected with Withrow’s Farm Market in Winslow and went to work for them, where she learned the craft of butchering. She started selling their meat as a side hustle at the Alderney Landing Farmers Market.

“I saw a gap in the availability of local meat, so I started very organically and very small and eventually worked myself into buying meat directly from suppliers and farms I chose,” she recalls. “It just made sense to me that the people who cared about what they did and worked on a small scale would ultimately produce a better product. And while I wasn’t making much money, I ate like a king.”

In 2019, just before COVID hit, Hagell made the leap. She designed, built and opened a brick-and-mortar retail space.

Butcher shops are a remnant of a time when consumers were more connected to their food’s origins. They cared more about a cut; not necessarily a fancy one, but one packed with flavour.

In an increasingly industrialized meat culture, buying meat nowadays is reduced to staring at mounds of plastic-wrapped trays. Bringing back a neighbourhood butcher shop just feels like an edible adventure and getting to know a butcher will change how you cook. And most importantly, it sparks conversations we should be having. Conversations about where our meat comes from, how the animal was raised and killed, how to cook different cuts, which cheaper cuts will offer more flavour, how much meat to buy, and how to stretch budgets further.

“I’m building a community,” says Hagell. “It starts with the Nova Scotian farmers that supply the meat, my team that works here with me and who care about what they do, and the consumers who buy our products. I want people to understand where their food comes from.”

She aims to help people get comfortable exploring and taste the benefits. “We are incredibly fortunate in Nova Scotia to have such a varied climate, with distinct grow cycles, which all contribute to a quality end product,” says Hagell.

The elephant in the barn is still that craft butcher shops tend to be in high-income urban neighbourhoods, and the meat therefore is more expensive.

“That’s part of why I wanted to open the store in Dartmouth. Also, Dartmouth shows up for Dartmouth,” says Hagell. “The people working behind the counter … are passionate about what they do. The counter-style service ensures that there is an interaction with customers and that we have those conversations. And because we’re a full animal butcher, we can offer many options and discuss cheaper, more flavourful cuts.”

She mentions a pensioner who comes in every week for a 150 grams of ground beef because that’s what she can afford, but she also wants the best quality her money can buy. “It’s not just about grabbing the cheapest meat for dinner,” says Hagell. “It’s more about eating better meat, less often.”

Everything at Vessel Meats is done by hand, which means the process is entirely different than at a large supermarket operation. “We only use whole animals that we cut down from large to small portions, and we use every part of it,” explains Hagell. “Our meat is also dry-aged, which results in a better product … As it’s left to hang, it dries, which means there are also fewer bacteria because bacteria thrive in moist environments. The natural enzymes break down, making it more tender. As the meat loses moisture, the flavour is concentrated, exactly like when you boil down stock. Compared with supermarket meat, which might seem cheaper, our meat will lose much less moisture at cooking, and our meat will also typically last longer.”

Hagell points to the metal ceiling track running from the loading dock at the front of the store into the walk-in cooler. “We typically go through two beef and one pig carcass per week,” says Hagell. And with around 20-plus cuts on each, it’s painstaking and precise work. The walk-in cooler has a veritable feast of deliciousness hanging and dry aging: cuts of whole prime rib, labelled and dated pancetta, whole cured hams, and links of sausages: the names scribbled on tags: Pascal, Belfast, Hawaiian.

In the kitchen, the business’s prepared food side has taken off.

“We’ve started doing a lunch special, which has brought in a whole new set of customers,” says Hagell. And it’s easy to see why when there’s braised beef shank, house-made salsa, cheddar, pickled onions, and chipotle aioli piled on a bun. “I want a smoker next, to stick in the corner, so we can smoke our own bacon and brisket.”

Before leaving, many things tempt me for dinner. I settle on capicola: pork shoulder steaks, twice as delicious and half as expensive as a chop. “Treat it like a steak, ensure it’s at room temperature beforehand, and grill on high heat.” Each chunky, rounded piece is zebra striped with fat, which Hagell tells me will melt when grilled and keep the meat succulent and tender. I leave feeling like a more informed and inspired omnivore.

Colleen Thompson

East Coast Living