You say you have never eaten this French thing called charcuterie. But if you have swabbed a forkful of all-American meatloaf in a mess of mashed potatoes and swallowed it, you have eaten charcuterie.
Which means its gets even better — you probably have made charcuterie.
Check you out. Next thing, you will be a charcuterie blogger with a book deal and routine Twitter shout-outs from Mario Batali. He loves talking up charcuterie, in part because his father, Armandino Batali, makes his own charcuterie in Seattle and sells it, although neither Batali would ever call it charcuterie. They go with salumi (with a "U"), the Italian word for the same process. Truth be told, the Italians got into it before the French.
No matter what tradition you honor preserving meat has become a big deal in food circles in recent years. Every other remotely ambitious chef, it seems, is making her own bacon and curing duck legs in fat, a process called confit. Some, like Frank Bonanno at some of his joints, are even hanging their own salamis (with an "A").
Over at the Denver restaurant Colt & Gray, owner Nelson Perkins is busy building a nearly 1,000-square-foot space dedicated to charcuterie, and most of the cured meats in the restaurant already are done in-house.
"We bring in a whole pig and lamb every week," he said. Charcuterie is a "great way" to make sure the entire animal makes it onto dinner plates.
Let's get clear on one thing — what is charcuterie?
Before people preserved meats in refrigerators and freezers, they cured them in salt. Techniques for meat preservation and preparation evolved over the years, with smoking, confit and more. But the idea remains the same — take some meat and do something to it to make it either last longer (think, salami), or turn the meat into another type of meat product (think, meatloaf or sausage).
You can make it at home, and charcuterie guru Brian Polcyn, who wrote the widely acclaimed book, " Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking & Curing," and is appearing in Denver this weekend for charcuterie demonstrations, says you should.
"This is the kind of food that has soul. Its real chefs' food," said the Michigan chef. "A good salami or prosciutto is so simple — the recipe is rock salt and pork. But how do you transform that into a ham that you eat later and never refrigerated? It's romantic."
It also is a commitment, he said. People in need of instant gratification in the kitchen should just sautÃ© something. Pity them — they will miss out.
"These things take time," said chef Paul Reilly, the co-owner of Beast + Bottle restaurant in Uptown. Reilly used Polcyn's book, " Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking & Curing," for his first stab at charcuterie, a breakfast sausage. Since then he has tried making nearly everything in the book, and serves plenty of charcuterie in his restaurant.
"So often you go to the grocery store and you look at the magazines in the check-out aisle and they say, 'Dinner in 30 minutes.' There is nothing in charcuterie that could possibly be done in 30 minutes."
But charcuterie doesn't need to take months and months, as it does with some salamis. Begin with bacon, said Polcyn. It is among the easier preparations, and the results are worth the wait.
"My recipe is a seven-day cure, in a gallon Ziploc bag — a 5-pound pork belly fits perfectly," said Polcyn. "Every day you massage the salt and sugar into it. It's a slow cure. It's been done this way for 500 years. You rinse it off, slow smoke it over natural wood. I use cherry. Get it to a temperature of 135 degrees, chill it, slice it if you like, griddle it. Oh my God. It's fantastic, the best bacon you have ever had in your life."
Things like bacon, corned beef, sausage and gravlax (cured salmon) come with relatively few safety alarms, but the more complicated stuff, like aged salamis, are not for beginners. As those whole muscles or those salamis hang, turning from soft flesh into firm prosciuttos and soppressatas, bacterias like botulism and listeria can gain purchase and flourish. For people who know what they are doing, the threat is minuscule, but curing a finocchiona (a Tuscan fennel salami) is not a wise place to start.
"It is sincere food, sincere simplicity," said Mark DeNittis, a Denver chef and butchery consultant who ran his own salumi business until working with health inspectors, for whom small-scale commercial charcuterie is a novelty, became too difficult. DeNittis grew up making salumi in Massachusetts with his extended Italian family.
"I like to joke around that everyone is familiar with charcuterie. But really, it's called salumi," said DeNittis. "Salt, a period of time, slicing it thin and savoring the natural, pure flavors. It's amazing."