Forget all the clichés about how making sausage is like making laws — a messy, gross process that ends in a good result.
Nothing done in Frankfort was ever as fragrant or painstaking as University of Kentucky dining services employee Zlatan Prasovic's picking the individual leaves off fresh oregano stems for his Italian sausage recipe.
That Prasovic mixes these ingredients in the basement of the College of Agriculture's Garrigus Building, not in a UK cafeteria, is because of a recent and delicious partnership between UK Dining Services and the College of Agriculture. The college, unbeknownst to many, has a full-scale USDA meat processing facility, complete with areas for slaughtering, butchering and processing.
A few years ago, when UK Dining wanted to buy more local meats, Chef Scott Kohn met with Professor Gregg Rentfrow, a meat science professor for the department of meat and food science in the College of Agriculture. Rentfrow teaches students about meat processing, including slaughtering and butchering. With Chef Scott (as he is called), they could also teach students about making products for sale.
That's why in a chilly room next to Prasovic, Rentfrow and Chef Scott fed 100 pounds of pork into a grinder as Ryan Chaplin, the meat lab manager, fit sausage casings onto their state-of-the-art sausage-making machine. They were making apple bourbon bratwurst before they got to the Italian sausage.
The results of this collaboration have ended up in UK Dining cafeterias and catering products, as well as a new meat shop for the general public.
"It's a super partnership, and the ultimate outcome is a positive benefit for students by expanding their education and opening their eyes," said Animal and Food Sciences Chairman Bob Harmon, who happened by for sausage-making day. "It really promotes the local product."
Nearly all the animals come from UK farms around the state, and they are slaughtered in the Garrigus slaughter facility. For the apple bourbon bratwurst, Prasovic managed to obtain a load of apples from Evans Orchard in Scott County.
Most of the sausage recipes come from Chef Scott's family in Wisconsin, where a strong German-Swiss heritage is heavy on meat in general and sausage in particular.
The bourbon apple "spice block," as it's called, is 16 pounds of apples, onions, caraway seeds, salt and pepper, bourbon, sugar, nutmeg, coriander, celery and other ingredients that Kohn and his family prefer to keep secret. That is combined with 100 pounds of pork.
Chaplin threads casings onto the sausage maker, which squirts in the sausage mixture and twists the casing to make links. One hundred pounds of meat will make about 500 links of bratwurst.
The meat is ground twice, but the spice block is not. As Rentfrow explains, it's more pleasing to the eye to see bits of apple.
"One of the things I've learned from Chef Scott is that while we eat with our mouths, we also eat with our eyes," Rentfrow said.
Rentfrow's main class is taught in the fall, when undergraduate agriculture students get to participate in the slaughter of the animals, the butchering, the curing, the grinding, the hanging, the spicing, the smoking and then the selling and eating.
His research is all about staying current on meat. He's very focused on country hams, a native Kentucky product that he takes very, very seriously, including work through UK extension with the 4-H country ham program.
"There's as much science as there is art in making a country ham," he said.
Chaplin's graduate work, for example, is on the salt penetration of country hams, and how it works with the aging process.
They are also experimenting with American-style prosciutto, which in Italy can take as long as a year to cure. One of their most popular products is a Genoa salami, packed with whole peppercorns.
Rentfrow's research work now packs the shelves of the UK butcher shop, a tiny space tucked in next to the meat lab. There are more cuts of meat than one ever sees in a grocery store — Denver cuts, San Antonio cuts, chuck eyes, all of them innovations in butchering that have allowed meat producers to get more meats from different part of the bodies.
(Visitors to the shop are greeted by a life-size, cream-colored wildcat that Kohn, whose talents are not confined to making sausage, has sculpted out of wax and, you guessed it, rendered beef fat.)
In another case are the bratwurst, a dry-cured pork loin, city-style bacon, country dry-cured bacon, whole hams, pork chops, ground beef, pork and Mexican-style chorizo.
On Friday, engineering student Phil Sheldon was in the shop mulling all his meat options. He heard about the shop on a UK newsletter, and has embarked on a low-carb, high-protein diet.
"I enjoy fresh cuts of meat," he said. "I think they're healthier. They don't get much fresher than this, and there's a lot of quality control."
Everyone involved in this project is concerned about President Eli Capilouto's plans to possibly hand over UK food services to a private company. That plan is supposed to be finalized in April, and UK Dining will be invited to put in a bid as well. But last year, UK Dining spent almost $1 million on local meats, fruits and vegetables for UK students, and they worry that a private for-profit company simply wouldn't have the motivation to continue.
But Rentfrow expects the butcher shop to catch on with the public. All the proceeds will be plowed back into the department.
"What's old is new," he said. "Bacon is so big, for example. I think people are getting more interested in food, there's something about meeting the guy who grew the apples that you put in your bratwurst."
If you go
The UK butcher shop is open Wednesdays and Fridays from 1 to 5 p.m. It's behind Garrigus Hall, next to the loading dock. Garrigus Hall is on Cooper Drive, near the intersection with South Limestone.
Linda Blackford: (859) 231-1359. Twitter: @lbblackford