Catalan executive chef Chris Shepherd, the man other Houston chefs call The Godfather, grabs a handful of his very own homemade sausages and starts slicing them into gauzy ribbons. Red strips of coppa fall from the meat slicer like streamers, gracefully dappled with spots of slick white fat. He hands them to me as they fall. The meaty pig's-neck sausage is dark and rich.
Shepherd next takes a link of soppressata and removes it from its casing. Unlike the typical Italian hard-cured sausage, this version of soppressata is still soft and creamy. "It's a spreadable dry-cured meat," he says. He takes a knife and swipes a hunk of it onto a piece of hot bread that was just pulled from the oven.
The thick chunks of fat in the pork sausage immediately melt into the bread. The meat remains on top, glistening pink. Shepherd passes it over to me. I take a bite, letting the luscious meat and fat spread across my palate. It tastes unlike any other sausage I've ever eaten. Paired with a juicy nectarine, it is the perfect lunch.
For Shepherd, curing and preserving his own meats — making charcuterie — was a natural extension of his desire to prepare fresh food using local produce. As I finish the soppressata, he points to a small pile of plastic-wrapped vegetables in one corner, a grin on his face. "That's my only store-bought produce for the week," he says. For a restaurant the size of Catalan, it's not much. Soon, the rest of the fruits and vegetables start piling in from the back door, all of them from local farms.
Shepherd began sourcing his meat locally several years ago when he worked in the kitchen at Brennan's. "Randy Evans and I — who were sous chefs at the time — decided to go exploring and find some local farms here in Texas. We found a few good farms and started buying more and more and more. Once you start doing the local farming, pigs are the next steps. You say, 'Who can I get to do pigs?' You start to find smaller farms and people who are raising pigs the right way — not the Chinese whites that are processed — and from there, you learn breeds. You learn what makes the best hams, what makes the best pork bellies, what makes the best bacon."
Today, Shepherd buys his hogs from area purveyors like Atkinson's, Revival Meats, Hatterman and Jolie Vue, some of which also provide much of the restaurant's produce. His ever-increasing enthusiasm for bringing the freshest food possible to the table at Catalan has led Shepherd to make his own housemade charcuterie at Catalan, while at the same time becoming one of Houston's leading chefs.
As it turns out, Shepherd is following a national trend sparked by the surging popularity of British chef Fergus Henderson's nose-to-tail mantra and Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn's best-selling book Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing. The art of charcuterie is experiencing a renaissance in the United States.
But despite the fact that cured meats have been considered perfectly acceptable and safe throughout most of human history, and are an everyday facet of life throughout most of the world, here in the United States the practice is regarded as unsafe unless highly regulated, with a strict set of standards regarding time and temperature for meat preparations. There are ways around this, but they are complicated and time-consuming.
Patrick Key, bureau chief of consumer health services for the City of Houston Department of Health and Human Services, says he's cited plenty of places over the years for curing meat in-house, often at Asian restaurants, where they sometimes hang Peking ducks at room temperature. "They like to hang the duck for several days to get the skin nice and crispy," he says.
Even so, plates filled with handcrafted salami, pepperoni and soppressata are making appearances on restaurant menus all over Houston.
James Silk and Richard Knight of Feast are sitting at a simple wood table in their dining room, their stares blanker than a fresh sheet of butcher paper. The two chefs, who are both from England, were just asked when they first became interested in charcuterie. Apparently, the question was akin to asking a fish when it got into swimming.
"When did we get into charcuterie?" Knight finally says, repeating the question.
Silk answers: "It goes with our philosophy, really. Nose-to-tail. We're foreigners," he laughs. "It's normal where we come from. It's thousands of years old. It's part of our life. It's what we grew up with."
While charcuterie might be the hot new trend appearing on restaurant menus and diners' plates across the nation, it's anything but a recent discovery. And it's never fallen out of favor in Europe, where cured meats are as common as hot dogs are in America.
Houston diners have proven to have some apprehensions and misunderstandings about the food at Feast. The restaurant experiences its share of diners who are put off by the offal and unusual cuts of meat on the menu, which extends to its charcuterie as well.
"Most people look at our menu and say, 'Oh, I couldn't eat that,'" Silk says with a resigned sigh. He could easily be referring to Bath chap, one of Feast's best dishes. It's made from the lower jaw of a pig and tastes addictively like the lovechild of bacon and crispy pork cracklings, yet can be off-putting when described merely by its ingredients. (It can be even more off-putting when served the old-fashioned way, with parts still attached. A recipe from the 1968 edition of Jane Grigson's excellent book Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery instructs chefs to "cut the end of the snout off, as it upsets some people.")
But at least the ingredients in Bath chap are easily identifiable. Silk is affronted by the idea that hiding ingredients somehow makes food more palatable: "You're like, 'You eat hot dogs, right? What do you think is in those?'"
Knight chimes in alongside him: "Beaks and feet! That's what's in hot dogs! And God knows what else!"
Chef Alfredo Mojica, who oversees the kitchens at Marco Wiles's Italian joints Vinoteca Poscol and Da Marco, agrees about some diners' preconceived notions of charcuterie: "It's hard to sell things like lardo, because all they see is fat. It's very difficult. People don't understand. Terrines are sometimes difficult to sell, too. Like the antelope terrine. It's such a delicious thing and such a lot of work, it takes a whole day to make it, but people just don't want to try it. People are uncomfortable with things like venison or rabbit. But they're all animals!"
For chefs like Silk and Knight, using all the parts of the pig is just standard — a normal way of life. But for young American chefs, the craft of charcuterie is a new treat and one that goes hand-in-hand with their passion for fresh, hand-crafted food and a hands-on attitude.
"The desire to take things from 100 percent start to finish — taking it all the way and utilizing every piece — is really what it is for me," says Ryan Pera, executive chef at The Grove. "I know the product is all mine, and I'm dictating the way it tastes. And ultimately that's what charcuterie is. If you're using it in a dish, you know that you made it and that it didn't come from elsewhere."
Pera says having a charcuterie program has been the plan for The Grove from day one. "I feel that's a part of rustic cuisine and that's something we were shooting for at The Grove. I think it's somewhat lost in the modern cuisine."
Pera's "Picnic Platter" at the downtown restaurant is one of the best dishes in Houston. In a recent post on the Houston Press's Eating...Our Words blog, former Press food critic Robb Walsh waxed poetic about Pera's charcuterie plate: "Pera has quite a talent for charcuterie. Nobody in town does a better job with the dry-cure stuff — his dense, hard salami with whole peppercorns and his Spanish chorizo with smoky pimentón are awesome." The thin strips of lardo — cured fat (yes, pure pork fat with a few delicate seasonings) — lie draped across the plate with slices of thick, rustic pâté, perfect with crackers and a glass of wine. After all, charcuterie is about more than just cured meats; spreadable ground meats like pâtés and chunkier terrines are all components of the craft, too.
And pâtés and terrines are just as important to the philosophy of eating every part of the pig. Not every restaurant with an eye to creating charcuterie has the space to hang hams, cure large chunks of meat and leave sausages to dry. Restaurants like Da Marco and Vinoteca Poscol may not be curing sausages and hams like Catalan, The Grove or Stella Sola, but Chef Mojica is crafting dazzlingly creative terrines out of pork as well as rabbit and antelope. For Mojica, it isn't a matter of being uninterested in curing meats — it's a matter of time and space constraints.
"Curing meat in Houston is rare," Mojica says. "Rare and difficult. You've got to have a lot of different coolers to make prosciutto. It goes from one temp to another to another — like three different temperatures — and you have to have humidity levels monitored. It's a lot of work, and we don't have the time."
And time is important: the time to carve away the tiny pieces of meat from the pig that make the best sausages, the time to make sure the fat is properly cooled before and during introducing it into the meat mixture, the time to try various recipes and admit failure after three months working on a sausage, the time to constantly monitor humidity and temperature and the growth of good mold.
Pera agrees. "The places that are doing this — both in Houston and across the nation — are a very small percentage of restaurants." Houston presents a particular quandary, and not just because the craft is still so new here.
"The challenge is to beat the Houston weather. You really have to take away humidity because it's so humid here. Most places you have to add humidity," he chuckles. "Houston is not ideal for charcuterie making. But once we figured out a few things, things dry quite nicely now."
The art of curing and preserving meats with salt and smoke has been around since long before refrigeration was invented. In fact, it's been in use by humanity for longer than iron or glass. Ancient Romans learned how to preserve meat with salt from the ancient Greeks, who likely learned the process from the ancient Egyptians, while the Chinese had similarly been preserving meats for thousands of years.
Curing meats with salt isn't exactly a treacherous endeavor. After all, this is what Justin Basye — executive chef at Stella Sola — accurately refers to as "peasant food." The basic process is simple: Cover a piece of meat, usually pork, in salt. Leave it to dry. Remove salt. Eat.
The term "charcuterie" arose in 15th-century France to describe not only the process of curing and preserving meats but all the activities that surround butchering and using every piece of the pig, which is the meat traditionally associated with the craft. The resulting foodstuffs are most compactly described as anything made with forcemeat, which is a mixture of ground meat and fat combined with seasonings, although some forms of charcuterie — such as the huge, swaggering hams hung from barn rafters and doorways, old world-style — are nothing more than pieces of meat dried and cured with salt. Forcemeat is used to make everything from terrines to Tuscan salami, from pâté to pepperoni.
Many modern restaurants will order a whole pig only to use one or two parts, then throw the rest away. This kind of wastefulness has been a luxury afforded to us only recently, and it accounts for higher food costs where it's practiced. Restaurants paying a premium for a whole hog yet using only its loin are throwing away the potential for hams and dozens of different sausages as well as delicacies like headcheese or guanciale, not to mention the potential for money that could be made off these items.
The scientific process behind curing meat is fairly simple. Salt acts as a means of dehydration, pulling water molecules out of the meat and creating an environment in which bacteria — which need moisture to live — cannot survive. Or, as Ruhlman and Polcyn put it in Charcuterie: "By pulling water out of the meat, salt, by definition, dehydrates it. When it enters the cells of the meat, it also dehydrates the microbes that cause decay and spoilage and other potentially hazardous bacteria, either killing them or inhibiting their ability to multiply. This is salt's main preservative mechanism — dehydrating microbes."
In other words, properly cured meats are just about the safest kind of meat to eat. Not to mention they keep very well without spoiling and taste delicious with a glass of Spanish wine.
What's the risk of restaurants making their own charcuterie, according to the Houston health department? The department has no qualms with things like terrines, pâtés and lardo, which are all examples of refrigerated charcuterie. It's the hanging and cured meats that shift the operation into what's referred to as the "danger zone."
To be considered safe by the health department, meat must be kept at or below 41 degrees Fahrenheit. Most curing takes place at around 50 degrees. And it's not just the temperature that's at issue. "We're concerned with both time and temperature control," says Carolyn Gray, the health department's chief sanitarian. "We don't want the meat kept in that danger zone — between 41 degrees and 135 degrees — for more than four hours. Otherwise, dangerous bacteria can start to grow."
There are other factors. "A lot of times when you start curing meat, you're working in a temperature that's in the danger zone," adds Key. "You're starting to add nitrates or nitrites to sausages — things to kill bacteria or extend the shelf life. And that would be against our normal operation, things that we normally do."
Restaurants can get approval to cure their own meats by both obtaining a variance and instituting a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points plan. A variance is a written document from the Houston health department, the Texas Department of State Health Services or the U.S. Department of Agriculture that basically says that modifying or waiving one or more requirements in an ordinance is, in their opinion, not a hazard. Smokehouses require variances, for example. "And if you were to hang your sausages at room temperature instead of in a refrigerator, it would require a variance," says Gray.
Then there's the HACCP plan. In restaurants, this plan is required when the kitchen is processing or handling food outside the normal scope of its procedures and the health department's ordinances. Even a brief overview of a typical HACCP plan on the FDA's Web site is enough to put the most legally inclined person to sleep. The plans are extensive, highly meticulous and require an entire team of professionals — from lawyers to microbiologists — to create.
"They have to provide a flow diagram showing us every step that the product goes through from receipt to service," says Gray. "In that flow diagram, they have to identify the hazards — whether bacterial, chemical or physical — and then they have to show us how they're going to control those hazards. They have to have an employee and supervisor training plan."
An HACCP plan seems like an excessive amount of work for something that's been demonstrated by thousands of years of consumption to be perfectly safe. Moreover, the creation of such a painstaking document can't possibly be an easy undertaking for small businesses, which are exactly the kinds of restaurants that are trying to reintroduce charcuterie to the American public. "It's pretty detailed," says Key, "and a lot of people don't want to do it because it is so detailed and long."
And if an establishment is found not to be meeting health department requirements for charcuterie? "We would ask for voluntary destruction of the product," says Gray.
People in the industry still talk about the destruction of cured meat that took place in New York City in 2006 at Il Buco, the Italian restaurant in the East Village famous for its charcuterie. Seeing only "raw" meat hung below the appropriate temperature of 41 degrees, health inspectors poured bleach on Chef Ignacio Mattos's entire stash of cured meats, destroying thousands of dollars of inventory and months of hard work.
In a 2009 interview with Edible Manhattan's Winnie Yang, Mattos despaired of the New York health department's rash decision: "It was embarrassing to see someone just acting with no sense at all, throwing away a bunch of beautiful stuff. They don't care; they take the temperature and that's it. If it's meat, it's garbage."
The shelves of Allied Kenco off Interstate 45 and Airline are lined with shiny, mean-looking instruments: long, sharp-tipped lardoirs; giant, blocky cleavers; knives that look like swords; meat grinders that look as if they came off the set of Saw; slicers made of steel so bright it looks like they could cut with a glance.
While browsing the aisles and eyeing giant gambrels meant for hanging and cleaning carcasses as if they were exhibits in a museum, Café Rabelais chef de cuisine (and frequent Houston Press contributor) Jason Kerr and I spy Catalan's Chris Shepherd, laden with curing salt, gloves and dozens of other supplies. He shops there so often that every store employee knows him by name.
Allied Kenco's slogan is "Supplying everything but the meat." There's nothing you can't buy here, from sausage casings made of sheep's intestines to Bactoferm cultures. Those cultures are essential for producing cured sausages, and work by suppressing the growth of mold, yeast and bacteria by lowering the pH level in the meats. Allied's catalog includes a disclaimer in the section that contains dry-curing products like citric acid and Fermento: "Dry curing is the next level of sausage-making, and the intricacies should be well-known before attempting."
Books filled with age-old recipes are available to guide chefs, and shops like Allied Kenco offer the required tools and equipment, but curing their own meat is often a process of trial and error, and a sheer adventure, for most Houston chefs.
"I just made some boudin noir," Kerr says the day of our trip to Allied Kenco. At Café Rabelais, one of the best dishes on the menu features hot boudin noir served with a slice of fresh pâté on top, which quickly melts onto the blood sausage and into every crevice of the tart beneath it.
Blood sausage is a notoriously challenging sausage to make, both for the mess that it can create and for the difficulty in obtaining fresh pig's blood. "We usually buy our boudin noir, because it's such a big process to make," Kerr continues. But he had managed to procure a gallon jug of USDA-certified blood from a friend at a local farm.
"It was bright red, and it was sealed and it was stiff. I figured it was so stiff just because there was no air in the container," he says. "So I got everything ready to go. I chopped the apples and sautéed them. I chopped the onions and sautéed them. I ground up some fatback and a little bit of pork and had all this stuff ready to go because I knew that once I opened the container, I'd have to make the boudin noir immediately. Blood can't just sit around."
But when he opened the container, it was so solid, it seemed that it had been petrified. "So I open this gallon of blood and I go to pour it in, and nothing comes out," says Kerr. "And then I realize: It's pasteurized. Shit. Can I still use it?" Necessity is the mother of invention, and Kerr wasn't letting a solid chunk of blood stand in the way of good sausage.
"I thought, 'Fuck this.' And so I pureed it until it was liquid again."
"It looked like the set of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," he laughs. "I've got all these guts and blood everywhere. I'm covered in blood from putting the mixture into the funnel and trying to shimmy it into the casings. I was tying and poaching the links over and over. I eventually made 30 pounds of it. In fact, my sous chef took a picture of me because I looked like I'd just massacred somebody."
Justin Basye, who runs the kitchen and the fledgling but well-respected charcuterie program at Stella Sola, is so devoted to the craft that even his Twitter handle is @BigSalumi. He's gesturing to his collection of cured, hanging meats, speaking of them proudly.
"I really like doing various pork salamis like boar cacciatore," he says. "It's a boar and fennel sausage that will take about three or four weeks to hang," he says with a broad smile. "I also really enjoy soppressata and playing with the bigger diameter ones because you get a beautiful cut. We actually take that extra step and add our own cured lardo into our salami instead of just diced fatback."
He says that the occasional failure is par for the course when you're making your own charcuterie. "A scary one that can be tough is hams, because it's a lot of curing time and hanging time. When you cut one open and it's rotten inside, that's the worst feeling," he says. "With charcuterie, there's a certain amount of patience involved."
Both Basye and The Grove's Ryan Pera brought a basic knowledge of charcuterie with them when they moved to Houston from other parts of the country, but have learned a lot here. Our meat-loving city has been an excellent playground for the chefs, who can now easily get quality pigs from local farms and whose ambitions and creativity feed one another as they expand their programs.
As charcuterie has become more prevalent in Houston, Pera has seen sales of his Picnic Platter increase. "It's generally a pork-driven product, and some people shy away from pork," he says, "but other than that, it just goes so well with their dining habits. People are looking to share a lot of little things and charcuterie is perfect for that. They can sit down with a glass of champagne and talk and nibble and just have a great time."
James Silk of Feast believes the charcuterie movement in Houston is here to stay. More restaurants are putting it on menus, and more diners are coming to understand the history and the processes behind these intricately crafted meats.
"I don't think it's just a fad," Silk says. "It's not like molecular gastronomy or things to do with foams. I don't think it's going anywhere, and it's certainly not going anywhere back home," he says, speaking of England. Knight nods his head in agreement.
"Perhaps some will move on to the next hot thing, whatever that is. But people like us will just keep doing what we've always been doing," Knight smiles. "It's what we've been doing for thousands of years."
Charcuterie: A Glossary
Certain tools are required to make any kind of charcuterie, whether they be natural tools like salt or manmade ones like meat grinders and sausage stuffers.
Bactoferm: Essential for making sausage, Bactoferm is a brand of starter cultures or live bacteria. The bacteria feed on sugar and produce an acid that lowers the pH level in the meat and thereby prevents bacterial growth.
Casings: The inner lining of the intestine, usually of a cow, pig or sheep. Casings both contain the meat mixture that makes up a sausage and at the same time allow moisture to leave the sausage while it's hanging. Without this process, the sausage would never dry. Casings are also used to make fresh sausage and provide a lovely browned color and texture to products like sautéed sausages.
Dry cure: A dry cure contains a combination of salt, sugar (or dextrose) and pink salt. The dry cure is used to cover meat and thereby draw moisture out of the cells, which creates an inhospitable environment for bacteria.
Pink salt: One of two different kinds of curing salt, colored pink to distinguish it from regular salt. Insta Cure #1 pink salt contains nitrite, which prevents botulism from growing in smoked meats and sausages. Insta Cure #2 contains nitrate, which is used for dry-cured sausages that must hang for long periods of time.
All charcuterie is made from meat or fat, usually a combination of the two. Charcuterie can be roughly divided into two categories: fresh and dried. Fresh charcuterie includes softer products like pâté and rillettes. These products require refrigeration and don't keep for as long as dried charcuterie.
Boudin: A fresh sausage made with meat (most often pork), fat and seasonings. Boudin blanc is made by adding heavy cream, eggs and breadcrumbs to the mixture, while boudin noir (also called black pudding or blood sausage) is made by adding apples, onions and pig's blood. The traditional Cajun boudin that more Americans are familiar with is made by adding onions and rice. Boudin sausages are usually poached or sautéed.
Confit: A French specialty wherein meat — usually duck, goose or pork — is poached slowly in its own fat with a generous amount of salt. It's then packed into an earthenware dish and covered with the fat until the meat is submerged. Once the fat cools and hardens, it acts as a barrier to oxygen, sunlight and bacteria and will preserve the meat — with refrigeration — for up to six months.
Lardo: Cured pork fat from either the back fat or the pork belly. The fat is cured in a salt/spice mixture for nearly two weeks while tightly covered to prevent any light from damaging the delicate fat. Once cured, the fat is hung for three weeks until dried, then sliced paper thin and served on crusty bread. It can also be used in place of regular fatback when preparing other sausages and for general cooking.
Mortadella: One of the more difficult sausages to make, mortadella is a precursor to the American baloney. The fat added to the sausage is very finely ground or pureed and must be kept very cold to prevent breaking the emulsion, a delicate balance which keeps the fat evenly distributed throughout the meat. True Italian mortadella is made with ground beef and pork, diced pork fat and various seasonings, and air-dried or smoked. The result is a very soft, very airy sausage. Mortadella made in America is typically poached after preparing.
Pâté: Used interchangeably with "terrine," although terrine is simply a shortened version of the full term pâté en terrine, which refers to the fact that the pâté — a mixture of ground or pureed meats, seasonings and fats — is cooked in a terrine, or a mold. Pâté can also be cooked in a crust, in which case it's called pâté en croûte. One of the most familiar (and most expensive) types of pâté is pâté de foie gras, which is primarily composed of goose liver that has been marinated in alcohol, then pureed and baked with a mixture of egg and seasonings.
Rillettes: A cousin to both pâtés and confits, rillettes are made in the same way as confits: Meat is poached slowly in fat until it becomes very soft and malleable. At that point, it's pounded into a paste like a smooth pâté and fitted into a mold or earthenware dish. The fat is poured on top to create a barrier, which allows the pureed meat to keep in a refrigerator for weeks at a time. Like pâté, it's spreadable and best served on toast or bread.
Dried charcuterie includes products like hanged hams and hard sausages that require a lot of time to cure and dry, which is achieved by hanging the meat and keeping it at the proper temperature and humidity levels. The time required to dry can range anywhere from a few weeks to a few months to a year or more, depending on the type of sausage or meat. As the products age, they become harder and the flavors become more concentrated.
Bresaola: One of the few charcuterie products that's made entirely of beef. The beef is cured in a salt and spice mixture for two weeks, then hung to dry for three weeks. Once dried and hard, the dark red bresaola is thinly sliced and served on toast or bread. It can also be served on its own as part of a charcuterie plate.
Coppa: A flavorful product made with whole pieces of pork, usually sliced from the pig's neck or jowls, that aren't ground before being put into casings. The coppa is cured for 18 days and then hung to dry for three to four weeks. The end result is a dark, rich meat that is best served thinly sliced alongside other meats on a charcuterie plate.
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Guanciale: Similar to bacon or pancetta in flavor and texture, guanciale is the dried and cured cheek or jowl of a pig. Unlike coppa, it can be eaten much sooner and requires less curing and drying time.
Salami: Not to be confused with salumi, which is another term for Italian cured meats. Salamis are a group of hard, air-dried sausages that are boldly flavored, usually with garlic and whole peppercorns, and which will keep for several years if uncut. While the most traditional and popular salamis are Italian, such as Genoa or Milano salami, there are variants from other countries as well.
Soppressata: Similar to salami but more rustic, soppressata's meat and fat aren't as finely ground and the result is larger chunks of creamy fat suspended in the sausage. Like pepperoni and salami, soppressata is hung at room temperature (around 85 degrees) for 12 hours after the mixture of meat, fat and seasonings is put into the casings along with a healthy dose of Bactoferm. This allows "good" bacteria to form, which keeps the meat safe and well preserved while it dries, usually at a reduced temperature of 60 degrees for two to three weeks.