Learning the Art of Charcuterie
Over the past year or so I’ve delved into the art of curing in full force. I started making bacon 2-3 years ago but it wasn’t until this year that I began to make sausage (and upgraded my equipment from the dreadful KitchenAid attachment) as well as curing whole muscle meats. In the last 3 months I’ve just begun to scratch the surface of making salumi which has opened my eyes to a whole new level of food science. And ultimately making the slowest of slow food. It’s been a very good year from that perspective.
As I’ve learned more about the process of dry curing I’ve also reinvigorated my interest in food. I’ve always loved to cook, eat and share food with others. I truly believe it’s the ultimate way to bond with others, learn about them, share stories and experience culture. But I have never really put any deep thought into owning and running a restaurant. I think it’s just about the most difficult thing to do from a business perspective and it has horribly low margins, it’s success is based entirely on public perception, and the people who work in such places are generally stressed out. I have no wish to be a part of that and I’m thankful for the millions of others around the world that take that leap and dedicate their lives to feeding others.
All this being said, there’s more than one way to skin the proverbial cat – and you can create amazing things and feed others without having a restaurant. One of the drivers behind my experience at The Fatted Calf was to investigate the operations and process behind running a charcuterie. And while the traditional neighborhood butcher shop has it’s place in the world it’s also something I don’t think I’d want to do. Running a charcuterie, however, may very well be of interest as I love the art and science that goes into many of the traditional preparations of meat. I also romanticize about all of the wonderful meat-centric places I’ve visited in France, Italy and Spain. It’s easy to dream without understanding the realities of running such an operation.
And so what I learned in a short two weeks is what I never could have in reading books and playing around in my kitchen – running a charcuterie is fucking hard work. And the variety of products you can create is seemingly endless with multiple sets of hands required to keep the thing going. Not all charcuteries are as diverse as The Fatted Calf but nonetheless they all typically carry a good number of products that require mostly manual labor. Even glacially slow food is no joke.
What I Accomplished at The Fatted Calf
I did a great number of things at The Fatted Calf that I had never done before at home. First and foremost, I learned about large-scale charcuterie production and the necessity of both speed and accuracy in butchering. It was about 3-4 days in when I realized I wasn’t going to be as fast as everyone else that I worked with do I decided to focus on the quality aspect of my work vs. doing things quickly. This helped me psychologically as I’d rather do something slow and right vs. fast and sloppy.
I’ve done my best to encapsulate the learning experience from a ‘doing’ perspective below. Keep in mind that the numbers I list are approximate and I had help with many of these things. It’s intended to be more of an eponymous list vs. an audit-proof set of numbers. In any case – here’s what I did or helped to do over my two-week stage:
- Layout = ~150# or 189 racks for dehydration give or take
- Trimming bottom round for jerky marination – ~450#
- Marinating jerky – 50#
- Rillettes – 72 legs picked, ~100 jars filled
- Duck leg prep for confit ~ 72 pcs
- Breaking ducks – 8
- Boning ducks = 8
- Breaking up duck carcasses ~100#
- Sorting and vac sealing duck offal
- Brining picnic and large hams ~ 50 pcs
- Tying picnic hams – 48, coating with herb mixture for cooking
- Pork rillettes – 40# pork shredding, ~100 jars filled and topped off
- Ciccioli – Pork skin broken up – 5#, 40# pork shredding, 72 jars
- Boning out pork shoulders ~ 10
- Pork Shoulder stuffed with mostarda – 2
- Pork Shoulder stuffed with peperonata – 2
- Pork Shoulder Porchetta – 4
- Pancetta wrapped pork tenderloin – 39
- Country roasts stuffed either with walnuts, quince and sage or pear mostarda ~48
- Prep and vac seal pork chops with diavolo marinade – ~18
- Breaking down 100# of pork back fat
- Boning lamb legs – 6
- Trimming lamb for grind – ~100#
- Remove feet and heads and vacuum pack ~ 15 pcs
- Unloading into walk-in – 6500 pounds of pork, 3 head of lamb (headless)
- Endless moving things in and out plus reorganization of walk-ins for space
- Hanging piccola diavola salami, pulling petit sec, fegatelli, Spanish chorizo, etc ~ 200-300
- Trimming boudin noir casing ~50
- Cleaning and sealing guanciale ~ 15 pcs
- Trimming jowls for guanciale and curing ~ 12 pcs
- Trim and cure bottom round for bresaola – 4
- Casing and tying lonza – 2
- Casing and tying bresaola – 2
- Casing and tying Sbriciolona salumi – 6
- Moving salami around in curing chamber, pulling, etc – hundreds
- Prepping brine = 6-8x for different types of ham
- Grinding spices – many times
- Picking and finely chopping fresh herbs:
- Thyme – 1.5 quarts
- Rosemary – 3 quarts
- Italian Parsley – 2.5 quarts
- Sage – 3.5 quarts
- Garlic – ground 1.5 quarts with mortar/pestle
- Cracking hazelnuts for duck stuffing = 4 quarts
Of course there was endless tying of knots and loops which I improved at over the week but was still pretty slow at compared to my partners. I also experienced the joys of getting salty butchers string in every joint in my hand and I now sport several blisters to attest to this fact. They are my war wounds.
What’s the Meaning of All This?
I went into my stage experience with a four key questions I wanted to answer at the end. The are simply as follows:
Do I really enjoy working with large volumes of meat?
Yes and no. By this I mean working on curing a bunch of guanciale or bresaola or other preparations of meat has its merit. But trimming up hundreds of pounds of beef to make jerky isn’t really all that fun. After awhile, it just becomes a rote task that you need to do to move on to the next step. Now if I were to prep 100 pork jowls for guanciale would I feel the same? Probably if I had to do it every other day – but that isn’t likely. What I realized is that as long as I wasn’t on the same task for hours at a time I was happy to move from one thing to the next. The variety was what made it interesting. So, yes on large volumes and no on doing the same thing over and over for hours at a time.
What’s the difference between curing at home and in a commercial environment?
A lot. At home, I have my nice little makeshift fermentation area and my curing chamber that I’ve rigged up from a new fridge and a few other key components. I can hang about 50 pounds of meat of different varieties in here and it does the job. However, in a commercial environment – even one on a smaller scale like The Fatted Calf – the curing room holds hundreds of pounds of salumi in various stages of curing. And, as I mentioned earlier, making 5 or 6 salami in your kitchen with the radio on and a glass of wine by your side is very different from cranking out dozens at a time for 8-10 hours straight. So, for you home salumists – enjoy your leisurely romantic afternoon making some finocchiona. And rest assured that somewhere out there are guys and gals cranking out hundreds of pounds of the stuff in a day with few breaks and no music or wine.
Can I still hang in a commercial kitchen?
Yeah – I guess so. But I’m slower than most though I expect that could improve with practice. I also ate ibuprofen every day which I don’t like to do. But yes, I think I could hang. If I ever absolutely needed to work and it was the only thing I could do to make money then I could do it and do it well. But I’m not sure I want to make a career of it. Props to those of you that do. It’s killer work and you deserve every penny you get even if it isn’t much.
Do I want to focus on charcuterie as a career?
The short answer is ‘I don’t know’. It’s too early to tell and I still need to let this experience sink in. I know that most of what I’ve done at home has been received well and is of good quality. But again, I do it at my leisure and it’s not a day job. Do I want to do it all day every day? Probably not. Do I want to have a small wine and salumi bar that’s open 5-6 hours a day and just serves cured meats and antipasti? Maybe. Stay tuned…
This experience was of immense value both intellectually, emotionally and physically. I learned more in two weeks of hands on work at The Fatted Calf than the sum of every ridiculous boondoggle conference and training I went to in my 20 year professional career. There’s no substitute for working alongside experts in a particular field. And getting your hands dirty. Would I do it all again? In a heartbeat if my wife would let me. Will I stage somewhere else? Yes, probably as I’d like to experience at least 1-2 more charcuterie and salumi establishments to compare and contrast. Until then, I’ll be plying my newly learned skills at home in the hopes of creating the perfect salumi!