Why you should care

Food, design and art are merging for many practitioners. Now it’s reached the butcher shop.

A pianist’s hands, precise and slender, combed hair flecked with gray, and fine facial features. Ludwig Hatecke, 59, looks nothing like a storybook, fleshy, rosy-cheeked butcher. His elegant hand gestures would be at home playing a Chopin waltz or presenting a diamond necklace to a customer at the Place Vendôme.

But here in the Swiss village of Bad Scuol, the object Hatecke presents is a piece of topside beef carefully tied up with a length of string. He’s in his tasting room above a slaughterhouse, the “Laboratori dal Gust,” explaining the steps for creating one of his specialties, for which his fame stretches beyond the borders of this picturesque village. For three weeks, Hatecke will turn the cut of meat, rubbed slightly with salt and bay leaves, every two days, thereby encouraging the juices to spread evenly throughout the meat. Only then will it be hung up to dry, pressed periodically into its characteristic rectangular shape. Several months later, it emerges: a piece of his best Bündnerfleisch, air-dried beef, for which customers stand in line in his stores in Scuol, Zernez and St. Moritz, happily forking over more than $60 a pound.

His stores look like minimalistic design boutiques: black marble, linear stainless steel and glass.

Hatecke has mastered the “art of omission,” reduction to the essentials. His stores look like minimalistic design boutiques: black marble, linear stainless steel and glass. No groaning meat trays in display cases from which the salespeople heave the goods onto scales. Only individual pieces, curated and presented as if in a gallery. It’s a throwback to the past, when, says Hatecke, “there wasn’t much meat on the shelves, so you made sure to present it as attractively as possible.”

His great-great-grandfather came from the Elbe port city of Stade to the Swiss valley of Engadine to help build the large hotels. Hatecke is a third-generation butcher who learned the trade in Geneva in the Grande Boucherie du Molard. “Back then, every butcher had his chopping block in front of him and served his regular customers from there. Some female customers wouldn’t even go into the store if they saw that … ‘their butcher’ wasn’t there that day.” Minimalism aside, Serge Belime, director of the Grande Boucherie du Molard, says the technique of drying meat isn’t new: “In fact, it’s a very old tradition that was forgotten for a while, but we brought it back and have been using it for years.”

Ludwig Hatecke

Ludwig Hatecke

Thirty years ago, when butchers started offering other items — seafood, Waldorf salad, cream cheese dips — Hatecke decided his store would focus solely on meat. His colleagues may sell high-quality products, he says, but they become devalued as soon as they get shrink-wrapped in plastic bowls. Hatecke designed his signature black paper bags himself — even the small paper squares he uses to pass tastes of cold cuts to his customers bear his larch-wood-burned label.

The minimalist aesthetic was espoused by American artists Donald Judd and Carl Andre in the 1960s and picked up decades later by architects and designers such as John Pawson and Jil Sander. It’s pleasing, ordered and refined, but it does raise the question: Hatecke meat may look better, but does it also taste better? He lays out wafer-thin slices of two kinds of Bündnerfleisch. On the right are slices from a young cow, a strong red; on the left is much darker meat from an older cow. Hatecke processes cows that reach up to 12 years of age — a biblical age by today’s standards. “This cow enjoyed seven summers on the Alpine pastures,” he says. I almost wish I could trade places with the cow, if not for the inevitable ending. After tasting slices from both sides, it’s immediately clear how much better an old cow can taste.

This cow enjoyed seven summers on the Alpine pastures.

— Ludwig Hatecke

Hatecke’s fixation on creating the most authentic beef flavor starts with the feed. Cows fattened with soy or corn, typical in America, develop a sweeter taste. Hatecke’s meat, by contrast, tastes strongly of beef. Or of venison, deer, chamois or ibex. Salt and herbs are used sparingly, and each piece must be checked and turned often, translating to more work and higher prices. We follow Hatecke into his aging room for fresh meat. His côtes de bœuf are coated with a fine layer of their own fat. They have a white shimmer and a delicious aroma. Once home, with a mature pork chop from a pig that roamed the Engadine mountains, the true test begins. It’s simply seared with a touch of rosemary, salt and pepper, then finished in the oven. A heady smell fills the kitchen. For pork this tasty, I’d gladly make the pilgrimage back to Bad Scuol.

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