Charcuterie is the meat of the matter

Foodies bring charcuterie home, making everything from bacon to prosciutto
Karen Pinchin
AUSTRIA / Tyrol / Volders / Tiroler Speck (Tyrolean bacon) / Weindler Hof / Karree curing † Herbert Lehmann / Anzenberger
The meat of the matter
John Cullen

I’ll never forget the horrified look on my husband’s face as he stared down into the cardboard box I brought home from the butcher. I had just burst through the door of our Vancouver home, staggering under the bulk and weight of my package. He had just woken up, groggy from his night shift, as he lifted the open flaps. His eyes widened and jaw dropped as he stared into the enormous snout of my peach-pink pig’s head. Looking on, I clapped my hands with excitement.

This headcheese project was an escalation of my homemade bacon hobby, which had been a year in the making. While it may sound prohibitive, the whole process of making bacon is quite simple, starting with a five-pound pork belly obtained from a butcher. Apart from the fat striations, the rectangle of raw pink flesh, nearly six centimetres thick, looks nothing like its miraculous end product. The slab is rubbed with a carefully weighed mixture of salt, sugar and spices, along with a pinch of sodium nitrite, and sealed in a plastic zippered bag. Stored in a fridge for five days, the salt mixture draws moisture from the meat, and all that is left to do is dry it overnight on a rack, smoke it, skin it and slice it. Voila. Bacon.

The word “charcuterie” is derived from French—flesh (chair) and cooked (cuit)—and was originally used to distinguish 15th-century purveyors of raw pork and cooked pork products, of which bacon was one. Its derivatives may be on menus both good and bad across the country, but history affirms that human survival and progress, from the Vikings’ salt cod to the first American settlers’ barrels of salt pork, have been predicated on the art of meat preservation.

“The history of charcuterie, in the sense of salting, smoking and cooking to preserve, may date almost to the origins of Homo sapiens,” U.S. author Michael Ruhlman says in his 2005 book, Charcuterie, written with Michigan chef Brian Polcyn. “It has been carried on in many forms through virtually every culture, and it has been one of the foundations of human survival in that it allowed societies to maintain a food surplus.”

Ruhlman’s book started my own slide into charcuterie obsession and reinforced my desire to go to culinary school. He frequently hears from home cooks and professional chefs who say his compendium of charcuterie knowledge has changed their lives, although he never could have anticipated the fervour the book would inspire.

“It did happen to strike an extraordinary chord. Here’s a book that is devoted to animal fat and salt, the two main food products that America is terrified of, and it’s become an incredible success,” he says in an interview. Along with the related rise of nose-to-tail eating, in which animal parts like organs are consumed, it dovetails with increasing pressure on consumers to know the source of, and be able to cook, our own food.

So, enthused with my homemade bacon, I offered to give free demonstrations of my technique at a Vancouver DIY conference called Mini Maker Faire last year. There, Alex Harford left with my paper handout of Ruhlman’s recipe, along with a few free samples of my bourbon-vanilla bacon. Due to our chance encounter, he’s been making bacon ever since.

“I wasn’t even aware of the term charcuterie,” says Harford, a 34-year-old father and software developer, who now makes five-kilo batches of bacon on his own. “I’m working with high-tech stuff all the time. It’s really nice to get back to the basics, and learning about the food and being connected with the people who are selling the food. It’s definitely rewarding.”

Harford and I are increasingly drawn to more ambitious projects. We’ve both made Ruhlman’s duck prosciutto, where a duck breast is salted and then hung to dry, and I have tackled the slightly more advanced projects of headcheese, cured pork cheek—or guanciale—and most recently bresaola, a dry-cured muscle of beef.

According to Anita Stewart, an Elora, Ont.-based culinary activist with 14 cookbooks under her belt, Canadian consumers are increasingly wary of industrial meat. They want to know where their meat comes from, and that the animals were well treated.

“I think after Maple Leaf [the 2008 listeriosis outbreak that killed 23], a lot of people were very ill, and I think that put the fear of God into some people,” says Stewart. “It’s another element of eating locally that I really like. All the large manufacturers, all safety considerations aside, simply couldn’t do it.”

Ruhlman agrees that a shift in public consciousness is one reason for his book’s success. “Charcuterie is fundamentally about preserving food, not wasting food. It’s all part of a recognition, finally, of how important food is,” he says. “We gave over our cooking, thoughtlessly, to big industrial giants who did not have our best interest or food’s best interest at heart. Charcuterie is one way people are taking back their food.”

According to Stewart, this impetus is also drawing people to locally owned butcher shops and producers. “The butcher is coming back, that is one thing I do know. But will we have more small-town butchers than we did 25, 30 years ago? It’s hard to say.”

One person who has benefited from this upswing in regional charcuterie and meat is Kyle Deming, chef and co-owner of Toronto-based Sausage Partners. The business opened in October 2011, born out of what Deming saw as a missing link between smaller, provincially inspected livestock farmers, and consumers willing to pay a premium for animals raised by more ethical and sustainable methods, such as free-roaming and grass-fed.

When customers come to Sausage Partners, they want to know the narrative of the food. “People want to feel a personal connection to where their meat is coming from,” says Deming. “Farmers have lots to do, and they don’t really have the time to stand in shops and explain their products. That’s our job.”

The shop, which has recently started to offer classes, including butchery and sausage making, does see the odd customer who wants to buy sausage casings and pink salt in order to do their own charcuterie. However, Deming says “the fear factor” of working with raw meat discourages many an adventurous home cook.

“It’s not magic and it’s not rocket science, but there is a danger of food-borne illness if you’re not monitoring it properly. If nobody has actually shown them how to do it, and they’re muddling through on their own, there is real risk,” says Deming. “Books don’t cut it for something like that.”

While Ruhlman concedes charcuterie has varying degrees of difficulty—the simplest recipes like duck prosciutto, pork jowl and beef jerky involve curing whole cuts of meat—he says it is mostly dry-cured sausages like the French saucisson sec that should make home cooks nervous.

“Mainly it’s just common sense, and understanding how bacteria work. It’s not the bacteria but the toxins they generate. Bacteria are found everywhere, and people shouldn’t be afraid. The short answer is that it’s very unlikely that you’ll get botulism, especially if you follow the recipe.”

For Stewart, who buys farmers’ sausage from Mennonites in her area, the most reliable producers are those who have been making charcuterie for generations. When she hears about my forays into bacon making and meat curing, Stewart is enthusiastic but wary. “You have to have perfect refrigeration or really serious cultural knowledge. I mean really serious,” she says. “I think it’s fantastic that you’re trying it, but you do have to be careful.”

One of the biggest impediments for the home cook, adds Deming, is the time charcuterie takes—months of hanging for a large ham—plus the financial risk assumed were a batch ever to go bad.

“To buy a leg of pork and salt it and have it spoil—it’s a miserable experience. It’s crushing,” says Deming. He agrees that books like Ruhlman’s help demystify otherwise simple charcuterie processes. “There are things that are absolutely not for the novice, things you need to work up to. But for the first shot out of the gate? Absolutely make some bacon. Why everybody doesn’t do it, I don’t know, because it’s the easiest thing in the world.”