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Charcuterie — really, really, really nice coldcuts — is becoming more popular in Waterloo Region. If restaurants aren’t serving more of some of the best charcuterie like Pingue of Niagara (because charcuterie is great for increasingly popular “sharing boards” on restaurant menus), then they are making it themselves; restaurants such as Del’s Enoteca, The Cambridge Mill and The Bauer Kitchen to name a few.
Dan McCowan’s uptown Waterloo Red House is a good case in point: it captures the evolution of an in-house charcuterie program. Red House sous chef Spencer Vella has been in the process of honing his charcuterie skills and his repertoire is growing. There’s more on the way — slowly — at Red House; you have to remember that it’s a time-consuming and labour-intensive process.
Charcuterie, etymologically, breaks down into Old French words char (meaning “flesh”) and cuite, (meaning “cooked”). On the culinary side, this is meat “cooked” not by heat but by extracting moisture from it. Originally, the term applied only to pork treated in such a way as to create delicious salami, sausages and prosciutto; today, it can refer to any meat preparation involving salting, smoking or drying.
Ancient charcutiers were granted the right (it was a monopoly, in the truest sense of the word) to sell cooked pork meat in medieval France as long ago as 1476. They could not butcher the pigs, however; that was left to the butchers’ monopoly, of course.
Whatever guild was doing it 400 hundred years ago, and whatever restaurant chef is doing it today here in Waterloo Region, it is still a bit of gamble: you don’t know if, after several months, the result will be a really great soppressata or a merely average one. Take the example of Vella’s spalla, of which he and I spoke after descending the cramped and old stone cellar-stairs in the back of the restaurant — one can only imagine them as the ancient cobbled steps of a charcutier shop in St-Germain in the 6th arrondissement.
“It takes time and patience, not to speak of hope,” says Vella. “I’ve had a spalla hanging since January, and I believe it will be done by the end of October. This is the first time I’ve made this so I’m not exactly sure how long it’ll take, but my calculations put it around October or November.”
Spalla, an enormous, seven-kilogram rolled pork shoulder which has been traditionally made in the Basse Parmese region outside of Parma, Italy, for hundreds of years, is indeed one big chunk of pork — and it’s a big investment of Vella’s time and space in the cooler too.
Belief, certainty, calculations, general span of time: you can only hope for a first-rate product after the effort, that much is sure. It starts with a big porcine chunk rolled out flat and cured before being rolled up and tied securely. Over time, the spalla loses moisture (which is the whole point of this “cooking”) and shrinks as the flavour concentrates and deepens.
Reductions are very, very good things; think about it: wine, cheese, a good demiglace, proper chocolate. All are delicious things reduced from larger quantities of things. Reductions are equivalent to intense, deep and well-rounded flavours; however, therein, in part, lies the food cost and why some foodstuffs are more expensive. Currently on Red House’s dinner appetizer menu is a board of selected house-cured meats with chicken liver brulée, a 67-degree egg, slices of grilled baguette, a few gherkins, some house-pickles and preserves and honey-crunch mustard. The board is $16.95, and while I don’t consider that expensive just consider the time the preserves and charcuterie took to make — and the fact that a good portion of what you paid for in raw-meat materials “evaporated” into ether. To borrow from the distiller’s lexicon, call it the angel’s share in the charcuterie cooler.
But there is more to engaging in the ancient craft of butchery and charcuterie than drying out pork and plunking it on a wooden plank in fine slices, Vella says. An inspiration for delving into the work derives from the farms producing the kinds of meats — and primarily pork — that chefs love to work with. Charcuterie is a craft of love and creation — an alchemy, almost — in which the goal is to enable the protein to speak for itself. Vella uses that kind of language — and he adds only salt and a few seasonings to let that charcuterie-voice be heard.
“We have such great pork producers in the region that I feel it’s one of the best ways to pay homage to the time the farmers put in, their good agricultural practices and the good feed they use,” he says. “That really comes through with cured meats because they are not cooked. I just love it.”
It takes practice and study to get the fundamentals down before you can create very good charcuterie. It probably requires some trial-and-error failures, too; like the curing process itself, it’s not something that happens overnight. You get things wrong with your curing mix, the temperature, the humidity — even light, which reacts with fat and causes rancidity — and you end up wasting a lot of expensive meat, or at least producing a merely pedestrian piece of gabbagool fit only for Wonderbread white.
So, has there been a salty, spiced, cured-pork sea-change in charcuterie waters where charcutier and butcher once again work closely together? I think there is. It would appear that both customer palates are now more sophisticated as well as the growing interest in and technically mastery of the charcutier’s deft touch. “Red House,” according to Vella, “offered a charcuterie plate a few years ago when we opened, but it didn’t seem to catch on. We put it on a second time, and now I’m having trouble keeping up with it mostly because of (cooler) space.”
Vella points to the diversity of products that are now coming from more and more local farms, like Blackview, or from butchers-of-excellence such as The Bauer Butcher. “Every time (Bauer Butcher’s) Matt Kendrick gets a wild boar, he calls me and I come get a new muscle to cure. Recently, it was coppa, a muscle that is known as butt but which is located in the shoulder with lots of smaller muscles running through it. I used lots of clove, allspice and cinnamon in the cure.”
That particular spicing decision is indicative of the investment in timing and planning that is needed in creating great charcuterie: Vella knew the coppa wouldn’t be ready for months, so he seasoned it with fall and wintry spices to coincide with the time it would start being served at the restaurant. That is cooking with the seasons at the same time as preparing ahead of what the calendar currently says.
The Red House repertoire also includes bresaola regularly (it also garnishes a Red House cocktail), lamb prosciutto, “pepperettes,” guanciale, lardo and a Blackview Farm duck salami. “I like the Italian-based stuff because it portrays the simplicity best,” says Vella. The restaurant also makes classic rustic terrines such as smoked bacon and pork, pig-head, and a ramp-wrapped terrine.
Though gaining in popularity, charcuterie is just the starting point as an ingredient for chefs, Vella notes. For instance, the bresaola, eye-of-round of beef cured for about a week in spices and salts, rinsed, cured for another week, rinsed yet again and finally hung in the cooler for six to eight weeks until it is almost purple, represents over two months of time that yields a couple of kilograms of reduced product, either for a menu item or as centre stage on a charcuterie board, he says. “However, when it’s ready to go, that’s when we can get creative with it.”
Charcuterie-driven or otherwise, the relationship between farmer and chef is the key one, I think, for a growing restaurant culture. It’s getting back to basics, yes, but it’s also been 400 years in the making. Cold cuts or otherwise, we shouldn’t forget our past. We should eat it in the form of charcuterie.