A Charcuterie Cure
Written onJune 01 , 2011
Here in the kitchen of Pete Colman’s barn-apartment in Plainfield, a small banner on the wall bears the magnanimous face of the Italian priest and saint Padre Pio, with the words “Don’t worry, soon you will be cured.” In the context of this home—just steps away from a sparkling new meat-curing shop that shares the same barn—it’s hard to know just who the saint is addressing: the cook who lives there or…the pig.
Maybe both. “Prosciutto is going to cure us,” Colman declares, unable to pass up the pun. Prosciutto is, of course, itself cured—that is, it’s one of the dry-cured and aged products that make up a certain category of processed meats known in French as charcuterie or in Italian as salumi.
But anyone in Vermont with a hankering for charcuterie is buying a product with a lot of miles on it—the best stuff, of course, comes from Italy. Here, charcuterie has yet to make a big appearance aside from the bacon, wet-cured hams, and maple breakfast sausage New Englanders have come to adore. But the dearth of dry-cured charcuterie appears to be ending. Just as Vermont has become a powerhouse in the cheese world during the past couple of decades, so too are we developing a real taste for the powerful flavors, melting textures, and funky undertones of these other gems of controlled decay.
Colman is one of the enterprising producers poised to lead the way. His business, Vermont Salumi, currently offers a selection of fresh sausages made from locally sourced meats, available at the Montpelier and Burlington farmers’ markets and from his stand at Cate Farm in Plainfield, where his business is based. His line, from liver-sausage ravioli to cocktail wieners, is also available for tasting at Montpelier’s new restaurant Salt. Colman plans to introduce a dry-cured salami this summer, with other delicacies—including prosciutto, naturally—to follow as his business grows.
Going into the business of dry-curing meats, or even adding these small treasures to a restaurant menu, is uniquely challenging because it requires a trifecta of expertise. First, these products aren’t easy to make, as anyone who’s dabbled at aging a roll of pancetta or a batch of saucisson sec in their appropriately humid basement can tell you. Temperature, humidity, pH, and mold growth, like the bloom on a soft cheese, require regular monitoring. Second, it is conventional wisdom that food-related startups are more than usually vulnerable to failure in their early days—business expertise is required. And third, in the case of cured meats, navigating the regulatory landscape is time-, space-, capital-, and patience-intensive.
Colman has the background to get into the business. When he speaks he sounds like a lot of other 29-year-old Vermont guys, but there’s a certain fastidiousness to his appearance that suggests a distinctly Italian sensibility that goes beyond the striped flag on the arm of his ITALIA t-shirt. He grew up in Montpelier and, later, on his family’s Cate Farm in Plainfield but returned each summer to visit family in Umbria, Italy, where he had lived until he was 4 years old.
It was on one such trip five years ago that Colman had his Prosciutto Revelation: “Why am I eating this here and why am I not eating this in Vermont?” he recalls asking himself. That is the question that spurred a young world traveler to don “a white frock and work in a 50-degree room under neon lights” to learn nose-to-tail pork processing alongside blue-collar Italian butchers; to drink coffee and to chiachierrare with market shoppers at a butcher’s stand; and to “jump into the Fiat at six in the morning with Mario and Francesco,” crossing the Umbrian countryside to slaughter and process hogs on private farms. There, prosciutto hams were laid on plain wooden boards, a finger run through their heavy covering of salt in the pattern of a cross, and “that’s science,” he says.
This is all to say that Colman comes to the meat curing with a certain kind of experience that is unusual for a Vermont meat processor. The cultural schism and the dearth of expert producers, perhaps even more than the regulatory labyrinth, has played a key role in keeping prosciutto and rillettes off the localvore’s shopping list.
“Educating myself is very time consuming,” says one chef who chose to remain anonymous for this story because they are still navigating the regulatory landscape. As producers and chefs learn the craft of meat curing, though, the public response is turning out to be overwhelmingly positive. “People are really looking for something different,” says the chef with whom I spoke.
By using advanced curing techniques, Vermont chefs are also making the most of the exceptional but expensive local meats that farmers raise, while offering their customers a product that’s truly worth the premium price. As the chef told me, “Charcuterie encompasses so many of the things we’re already doing: working with local flavors, giving people a taste of the place where we are, like with cheese.”
But if the lengthy curing process naturally teaches patience, governmental red tape provides the test, because the cured meat entrepreneur has the added burden of designing a facility and earning the blessing of regulators. The uncooked but ready-to-eat nature of dry-cured charcuterie is inherently risky in the eyes of a food-safety specialist, who is accustomed to relying on full cooking, pasteurization, or chemical preservation to minimize the growth of pathogenic bacteria that can make people sick. The cured meat products we are familiar with here in Vermont—wet-cured hams, summer sausage, and bacon—generally come to the consumer fully cooked or in need of cooking. Dry-cured items go through a different process that makes them safe to eat without cooking, yet Vermont’s regulators are new to monitoring many of the products that are cured in this way.
The first step toward regulatory compliance is to design a facility that meets basic sanitation standards, which vary based on the nature of the business—many of which are status quo for an inspected restaurant kitchen. Picture gleaming stainless steel tables, slick white walls, and meticulously labeled containers. But for meat curing, there’s an important additional step.
The holy grail of commercial and some retail food-safety regulation is the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) plan. This plan is an objective tool for assuring that the producer is, in Colman’s words, “reining in the chaos” in a way that is reliable, replicable, and backed by a solid foundation in food science and grounded in documentation of controllable variables like temperature, pH, and humidity at key steps in the process. What this translates to in practice is a daily routine of monitoring those variables and documenting that everything is within the safe range. Add to your picture a bunch of checklists.
Putting together an HACCP plan for each product and building an inspection-ready facility can be a harrowing journey for a small-scale food entrepreneur. The job of inspectors and regulators is to periodically monitor the process but also to guide producers down the path to successfully getting off the ground and growing their business. However the intense process keeps some prospective meat–curers working on the sly, or stops them in their tracks.
Or for some, it catches them by surprise. Healthy Living Natural Foods Market in South Burlington is home to the fine meat counter of butcher Frank Pace. For a time he was rounding out his selections with some house-cured meats. They looked lovely hanging above his head behind the meat counter, and his customers’ demand for saucisson sec and salami amounted to about 100 lbs. a month of cured sausage sales.
“It was amazing,” Pace recalls. “People loved it.” With one important exception: the health inspector. Pace’s cured products ended up in a pile out back, covered with bleach to render them unsellable and inedible, because he was creating these products without the proper facilities and with no HACCP plan. There’s no record of Pace’s cured meats making anyone sick, but neither was there a system in place to document their safety, besides his expertise and good judgment. As a result, Healthy Living has abandoned the house-cured meat business.
“The infrastructure is just too much,” says Pace. But he doesn’t rule it out of his future. “If I had the money I’d do it myself wholeheartedly,” he says.
But the regulatory learning curve is mutual; while producers are navigating existing rules, regulators are endeavoring to understand products and processes that are new to them and deciding how to regulate them appropriately. That is to say, they want to know what you’re doing and how you’re doing it, but more important, they want to be sure you know what you’re doing and that you can prove to them its safety.
“I’m not a curing expert, I’m a regulator,” says Randy Quenne-ville, Section Chief of Meat Inspection at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, which regulates all retail and commercial meat processing that happens outside a restaurant setting. He relies on producers to write their own HACCP plans and, ultimately, to document that the processes they propose are safe and proven. Then his agency approves the plans or works with the business to revise it until an acceptable plan is created. As interest in dry-cured meats has grown in the last year or so, Quenneville and his peers are looking outside Vermont for examples of regulatory structures that work for producers and satisfy health concerns.
Elisabeth Wirsing, Food and Lodging Program Chief at the Vermont Department of Health, describes the process for restaurants that want to add what they call “specialized processing methods” to their repertoire as “somewhat informal.” She asks chefs to propose a processing plan—similar to HACCP—that will “document and demonstrate that the process will prohibit the pathogens we’re concerned about.” This plan must be approved by a third party, such as a food safety expert at the University of Vermont or a qualified consultant, and submitted with a letter requesting a “variance” from the usual food safety guidelines.
“This is an evolving process; we’re trying not to make it incredibly laborsome for folks,” Wirsing says. “We know the sanitarian isn’t the first one you call.” Apparently not—there are currently no variances on file with her office. This leaves chefs and restaurant owners without a tested precedent to follow, but the opportunity to write their own rules and document their safety if they step into the spotlight.
And the spotlight may be just the place to be. With Vermont’s cheese industry as a model, and inspired by the success of more traditional local meat curers such as Vermont Smoke and Cure and Dakin Farm, makers of dry-cured meats could become a mainstay of Vermont gastronomy. Pete Colman, for one, is optimistic. “Ten years from now,” he says, “it’s gonna be on every shelf.”
Photos courtesy of Rose Wall
Some Commonly Found Cured Meats
Because of their saltiness and powerful flavor, the dry-cured meats are usually served sliced very thin. They are safe to eat as is, without further cooking.
Bacon ~ A lightly brine-cured, smoked pork belly available in a slab or sliced, and cooked before eating.
Canadian bacon ~ A lightly brine-cured, smoked, and fully cooked eye of pork loin.
Chorizo ~ A dry, highly spiced sausage of Spanish origin, often smoked.
Coppa ~ An aged, salt-cured whole muscle taken from the pork shoulder.
Guanciale ~ An unsmoked pork jowl, cured with salt and aged.
Lardo ~ A lightly spiced salt-cured slab of pork fat, taken from the belly or sides.
Lonzo ~ The whole pork loin, cured with salt and aged.
Pancetta ~ A rolled, unsmoked Italian bacon, often lightly spiced, cured with salt, and aged. Usually cooked before eating.
Prosciutto ~ An unsmoked Italian pressed ham, cured with salt and aged.
Salami ~ A dry, usually unsmoked sausage, often strongly spiced. Salami are made in many variations in flavor, shape, and size.
Saucisson sec ~ A dry, unsmoked sausage of French origin.