Owing to its phenomenal flavor, striking blood-red color, suitably macabre name, and Old Dominion pedigree, I name Bloody Butcher Cornbread the official 2015 Virginia State Bread of Halloween.
Even though not as commonly associated with Virginia as, say peanuts or ham, Bloody Butcher corn traces its roots directly to the state, where the first reference to the variety, a style of dent corn ideal for flour, cornmeal, and grits, was made in 1845.
When Bloody Butcher was named, referencing, as the story goes, the bloodied apron of a butcher, slasher films hadn’t yet been invented.
Back then, I imagine the colorful words connoted something of the ordinary facts of life, rather than the horrifying, especially for farmers, who would have had intimate knowledge of processing meat.
Until the recent whole-animal butchery renaissance, the sight of a bloodied butcher apron had almost gone the way of the Dodo.
Milling, another service key to a strong regional food system, has not experienced the resurgence that butchery has. That is why Evrim Dogu, co-owner with his sister Evin Dogu, of Sub Rosa Bakery, began to wear the hat of a miller as well as a baker: to source the quality of grain he requires and grind it fresh, as needed, on his own stone mill.
One of the grains he mills for the bakery is Bloody Butcher corn. He mills the whole grain to a medium-fine meal that he softens and hydrates in a vat of boiling hot water before folding it into a naturally leavened wheat dough base to make Polenta Bread. And, lucky for you and me, he sells the stone-ground meal at the bakery.
Evrim buys Bloody Butcher corn from William Hale, owner of All-Farm Organics farm in Louisa County, Virginia. The two met nearly three years ago at the annual conference of the Virginia Association for Biological Farming. After hearing Evrim speak on a panel about working with growers, from the chef/baker’s perspective, William approached him about growing grain for Sub Rosa.
It was the start of a farmer-and-miller/baker relationship that has benefited both, and every Richmonder who has enjoyed Sub Rosa’s Polenta Bread or stone-ground cornmeal. The relationship is also the reason behind a whole new strain of Bloody Butcher that William is currently developing especially for Evrim.
Because of its Virginia lineage, excellent flavor, ability to thrive in our area (William says in good soil, the plants will grow 16 feel tall), and the availability of good seed stock, the two settled on Bloody Butcher, an open-pollinated heirloom variety.
One of Bloody Butcher’s traits is variability in color, but among the strains available, the one that William grows nearly always consistently produces ears with blood-red kernels, which William likens to the luster of pomegranate seeds. About one in every twenty plants, however, produces yellow or multi-colored ears of corn.
William sorts the yellow ears from the red and when he has enough for a delivery brings what William calls “Butcher Gold” to the bakery. Because Evrim is fond of the flavor of this yellow variant, which Evrim has nicknamed “Blondie Butcher,” William is selecting seeds from the yellow off-type to breed a self-sustaining yellow strain.
In addition to selling the grain to Evrim, William also grows Bloody Butcher corn as a seed crop, available for purchase at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and Common Wealth Seed Growers. The latter, a seed company and seed grower’s co-operative, is a venture William started in 2013 with three other farmers: Sapphire Miria and Edmund Frost of Twin Oaks Seed Farm and Debbie Piesen, manager of seed growing at Living Energy Farm. All of the seeds available in the Common Wealth Seed Growers’ catalog are heirloom, open-pollinated varieties, and all are grown in Virginia and by Virginia farmers. Offering “farmer-direct” seeds is utmost in the company’s mission (just as more and more consumers want to know the source of their food, many farmers want to know the source of the seeds they purchase).
Because Evrim had mentioned in passing that he thinks the yellow variant of Bloody Butcher tastes different from the red, yet in such a low-key way so as not to color my impressions, naturally I had to try cornbreads made with each side by side. He is absolutely right. Butcher Gold is a revelation: It has a bold, sunny, full-on “corn” taste, similar to yellow cornmeal, except that actually tastes like what you would hope yellow cornmeal would taste like, not the cardboard-tasting stuff that is now commonly available. The flavor of Bloody Butcher is all its own, a more restrained and subtle flavor that is entirely delicious.
If you’re too busy handing out candy on Halloween to make Bloody Butcher Cornbread, the Day of the Dead, when ancestors are remembered and celebrated, is equally fitting. Make a batch and, as you’re enjoying a slice hot out of the skillet, slathered in butter, think about the Virginia farmer, lost to time, who developed this heirloom seed that has been passed down through time to feed us gloriously well today.
Bloody Butcher Cornmeal at Sub Rosa Bakery
Bloody Butcher cornmeal is available for $6 a pound at Sub Rosa Bakery. It is milled to a medium-fine texture. Evrim is happy to mill cornmeal to specification, if a finer or coarser meal is desired. For special orders, he requires up to 48-hours advance notice. There is a 1-pound minimum for special orders. Cornmeal should be stored in an airtight container in a cool environment for up to a few months, or in the freezer for up to a year.
Sub Rosa Bakery
620 N 25th St, Richmond, VA
Tuesday–Friday: 7am – 6pm
Saturday & Sunday: 8am – 5pm
Note: No animals were butchered in making of the photo sequence at the top of this posting. Richmond’s very own KimKim sauce was used for the fake blood.
Recipe for Bloody Butcher Cornbread
2 tablespoons bacon fat
2 cups stone-ground Bloody Butcher cornmeal
1½ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon baking soda
1 large egg
1½ cups buttermilk or keifer
2 tablespoons neutral-flavored oil or melted (but not hot) unsalted butter
- Place an 8-inch cast-iron skillet in the oven and preheat the oven to 425°F. As soon as the oven has come to temperature, remove the skillet from the oven and place the bacon fat in it. Return the skillet to the oven to heat the bacon fat until it is smoking hot, about 5 minutes.
- In a large bowl, combine the cornmeal, baking powder, salt, and soda. Using a whisk, mix extremely well (do at least 18 turns around the bowl) and make a well in the center.
- In a separate bowl, beat the egg, then add the buttermilk and oil and stir to combine.
- When the skillet and bacon fat is good and hot, add the wet ingredients to the dry and stir together in a four or five deft strokes until the dry is just moistened.
- Carefully remove the skillet from the oven and very carefully tilt the skillet to make sure the sides are coated with the grease. Then pour most of the fat into the batter. Quickly stir the batter to combine and immediately pour the batter into the hot skillet. Smooth the top with a spatula and immediately put in the oven. Reduce the oven temperature to 400°F and bake until golden brown and crusty around the edges, about 30 minutes. Allow to cool for a few minutes, then turn out onto a cooling rack. Cut into wedges to serve. Makes an 8-inch cornbread.