Modern Charcuterie

by Emily Kennedy

Modern Charcuterie

Elizabeth Cecil

Pictured: a pork loin curing in anticipation of becoming lomo.  

It’s not difficult to imagine the charcutiers of the past—tall, sinister-looking French men with sculpted mustaches and bulbous, aproned bellies. Crouching in dank wood-paneled and dirt-floored basements, pig carcasses suspended all around them, they’re examining the meats’ progress, muttering about their apprentices’ errors. Pah, they snort. A job for the experts.

There is no longer one such precise vision of charcuterie, especially not one that encapsulates the current meat preservation renaissance in the United States. The tradition, like most, has been borrowed and modified and reabsorbed back into the American culinary bloodstream so many times over that it’s reemerged as something wholly new. But in its most basic form, charcuterie is about memory. From pâtés to prosciuttos, terrines to sausages, we are consumed by butchering, brining, salting, curing, and drying—all with an eye towards traditional techniques and complex flavors lost long ago in the back of a French curing chamber.

When modern chefs talk about older methods of meat preservation, they all brandish the same reverence, as if, perhaps, the work of their forebearers involved some kind of formidable, transient magic. Indeed, the history of charcuterie is as obscured as it long. (Though lest we forget, people have always preserved meat.) The mid-century word charcuterie is derived from the French’s chair and cuite—literally meaning cooked flesh. But long before they had the word for it, as early as 1 A.D., the Romans wrote laws regulating the proper processing and cooking of pork; strict regulation dominated meat smoking and curing across cultures for centuries after. (Meanwhile, Christians and Jews debated the biblical ethics of eating swine.) During the 15th century, groups of militant French meatsmen successfully petitioned for the loosening of regulations. Though the possibilities for charcuterie opened up, it wasn’t until the 19th century that a few influential chefs heightened charcuterie’s reputation to a grander stage—French high society. And, for a few centuries, that’s where it remained.

Unfortunately, it was temperature control that really cooked the meat: the 19th century brought with it both industrialization and refrigeration. Or, as some would say—lazy butchering, bad processing, and low-fat diets.

“So the pig grew smaller,” wrote Jane Grigson in her 1969 Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery. “Now his weight is watched as carefully as any film star’s.” Or, as Chef Sean Yancey at State Road said, we heralded the age of “skinless, boneless breast chicken.”

But for the past few years, in that place where the farm-to-table movement intersects with haute cuisine, meat preservation has again captured mass attention.

And, as Jenna Sprafkin, the executive chef at Chilmark Tavern put it: “People are now like—‘God, I just want to eat real food again.’”

The Local Cut

On-Island, evidence of a charcuterie zeitgeist is everywhere: in backyard smokers and homemade sausages, on bar menus and in artfully constructed charcuterie plates. The words are often foreign and the cuts look new, but it shouldn’t be intimidating—the promise of something housemade and hand-cured is not a culinary experience that you want to pass up.

Jenna Sprafkin, executive chef at the Chilmark Tavern is a newcomer to the Island, and eager to share the strange, the new, and the different. (She already has a signature pâté on the menu, and regularly makes her own sausages for housemade pasta dishes.) For her, its about respecting where your food comes from. “For me, food is about love,” she said. “I use every single piece of the meat I can. When you have an intimate connection with the animal, how could you think about throwing away its parts?”

Eric Glasgow, the owner of the Grey Barn and Farm, often provides local meat to Vineyarders experimenting with charcuterie. Producing and selling preserved meats was part of his ideal business when he and his family purchased his farm property in 2009. “Starting out, we had this really neat vision,” Eric said. “We were interested in working with more traditional methods of preservation, including charcuterie—processing, smoking, and curing—in order to have things available to sell in the peak season.” Eric does some of his own home-curing of prosciuttos, rendering of pork fat, and the like, but was looking to build on his knowledge—the infrastructure isn’t currently in place to make this happen, but Eric still has hope for the future. “These parts of the animal that people never requested from us before are actually in demand,” he said. “There’s really a market for this.”

“In general, people are more interested in where their food comes from,” said Jan Buhrman, of Kitchen Porch Catering. And that goes for charcuterie, too. Two years ago, she found that her company’s compost system, four hungry pigs, had grown fat off of food scraps. Looking for a reason to share her interest in meat preservation with other chefs, Jan made her pigs the centerpiece of a weeklong training course for chefs. She called it Swine & Dine and built the event around slaughter, butchery, and meat preservation. “The whole idea of preserving is something that people have been doing forever,” said Jan. “And now, people want to be part of that again.”

Nathan Gould was a participant in Jan’s first Swine & Dine event. He comes from a culinary background, but even with culinary training, whole-animal butchery and charcuterie methods were foreign to him. A few years ago, Nathan started experimenting, and it’s stuck; after showcasing his preserved creations on the Harbor View menu all summer, he’ll be teaching a segment of this fall’s Swine & Dine. Spending the day watching Nate take apart a pig does indeed harken back to some older, slower place. “It is a time-consuming process,” Nathan said, slicing us a piece of meat. “But the payoff is in the ability to make something really unique, that people really appreciate.”