The Pig Gig
April 15, 2012
I thought it was humorous that six strangers sit down together in a diner banquet at a remote inn on the outskirts of Anchorage Alaska and five of them had photographs of pigs on their smart phones.
April 16, 2012
It took two of us to lift the carcass off the hook and lay on the table. The fresh scent of it hung in the air of the butcher shop despite the wall-to-wall antiseptic wash from the night before. We tested the blades of our knives. Stephan Silva, an adroit chef with a fondness for quality ran his thumb over a blade of laminated VG-10 “super steel”. Jason Jillson, originally Stephan’s chef de cuisine but recently turned free agent in the culinary theater of San Francisco casually opened his tool kit to select a well-used boning knife.
Ruby Duke from Raven and Boar Farm in New York ran a critical eye over the meat on the table and compared the slaughter marks to her own work. It was obvious even to me that the meat had been roughly handled. The head had been lopped off with the entire jowl attached. The knife thrust to the jugular, a bit too enthusiastic, had ruined some of the Boston Butt. Someone explained that in these parts prisoners of the local Federal penitentiary slaughter the pigs in a work program. I wasn’t sure how to feel about that. Couldn’t we teach them knitting?
Ruby was running on just a few hours sleep after flying thousands of miles to the territory of Alaska to spend a week with four men in a butcher shop. She called it a vacation. I was in the company of some high functioning foodies. We had come from the far corners of the empire to participate in a six-day workshop on the craft of cutting and preparing cured pork products. Italians call it Salumi, the French, Charcuterie
I picked up my old knife and shaved a few hairs off my forearm. I knew Francois, our teacher, would politely discard it as a baker’s knife, a baker long out of circulation in the world of fine food. Salame for me stubbornly remained something you get in the supermarket in vacuum-sealed plastic and spelled with an “I”. I didn’t discriminate between varieties as long as there had been no recent news of Salmonella poisoning. My knowledge of salame could be summed up in three thoughts. It came in large or small circles, you ate it on sandwiches and once you opened the package and peeled off a few slices you put it back in the fridge where it may never be heard from again.
Our first demo began. Francois spoke quietly, “Shall we start then?” He lifted the back leg of the pig and began cutting. His movements were confident and measured. He described every cut, every bone and muscle. I was watching someone so comfortable in their work it could be done blind folded. The blade moved as if it was part of his hand. He used muscle memory and experience to find his way and the pieces deftly separated into ham, loin, city butt and ribs. This was knife handling by a master.
Francois is a handsome Swiss gentleman who began his career long ago a as teenage apprentice in a Paris butcher shop. He has spent decades perfecting his art and working into the upper echelon of the industry. His career spans a major transformation of how our population feeds itself. Where we now derive most of our sustenance from a huge automated food industry he remembers when people grew and prepared foods more regionally, closer to home.
We are gathered here in the Matanuska Valley of Alaska to see and learn from a master Salumiere, a sausage maker of the highest regard. Little did we know we would also be infused with Francois’ passion for the more logical process of a small village economy and his disdain for the monstrous industry he had witnessed his art mutate to.
As the pig was transformed into clean cuts of meat and neat piles of useful bone and skin Francois’ narration of his demo was peppered with warm and humorous stories from a past when a cured ham or stick of salame had a crop, a farm and a local sausage maker connected to it. Francois speaks a few Mediterranean languages, sometimes all in one sentence. Today I listened to him begin a story in English then casually slip between Swiss, French and Italian. I felt poly-lingual there for a moment. He described how a butcher could actually feel the difference in quality between the flesh of a pig that was raised on a farm by a caring family and one that was treated as a commodity.
After hours of detailed cutting and explanation Francois needed a break. His lovely wife Christine laid out a spread of fresh fruit and vegetables. We brought several recently crafted sticks of salame and cured meat to a cutting board. I was still trying to develop a fondness for salame. Of course I love Bratwurst sizzling on the grill. And who can pass up breakfast sausage or bacon on a Sunday morning, but eight kinds of dried salame? Francois and Stephan kept talking about something called Nostrano. To me it sounded like a Sicilian crime family.
But then Francois reached and sliced off a paper-thin piece. He lifted the slice to his nose and smiled. He said, “Look at it, look at the particles inside and the clear delineation between the lean meat and the fat, smell the pleasantly mild, acidic quality.” He put it down and picked up the whole sausage. He gave the cut end a squeeze and pointed out the firmness, the color and the way no moisture or melted fat appeared. Put that way I began to think I might learn to like it after all. I was definitely ready to try some now that it had been described in such a cultured way.
I gave in and tasted all eight along with three varieties of cured ham. By the end of lunch I was sure of two things; I had a new appreciation for artisanal salame and I would be requiring a renal regulator to balance the recent influx of salt into my system. A few pints of Alaskan IPA might do the trick.
April 17, 2012
I don’t often take aspirin but when I do I eat three. Is Alaskan beer stronger than those in the lower 48? It might be the altitude, or maybe the latitude. Regardless of the after effects from the Midnight Sun Brewery work in the shop began on time. After all we have plenty to do this week. The five of us are to transform four mature hogs into an exciting collection of Salumi. The list includes Atriaux, Boudin Noir, Rillettes, Pate de Campagne, Headcheese, Mousse de Foie, Frankfurter, Saucisson de Lyon, Cotechino, Saleme Nostrano, Sopressata, and Chorizo, Jambon Royal, Speck Tirolese, Lonzo Coppa and several whole loin Porketta Roasts. Once we finish we will serve many of them at a grand banquet for fifty hosted by the proprietor of Palmer Alaska’s finest and most progressive restaurant, Turkey Red.
We began work today at 9am, a late start for a baker. There seems to be no rush to begin work up here because the days are so long. The sun comes up at a very casual pace, lighting up the sky long before it breaks over the mountain. It crosses overhead by the lengthiest possible route and then takes it’s gay ol’ time deciding to go back down. It’s almost indecisive. I watched it set yesterday and it seemed to hang just above the horizon for hours.
Today our task was to break down a side of pork using Francois’ example of the day before. We entered the back door of the shop to find Nate, the proprietor and host of our venue just finishing his morning work. Nate is a muscular man of average height with a wry smile and few words. His bread and butter, or steak and chops as it were is processing game animals for local hunters. Guys in florescent orange hunting vests, dirty pants and crazy hair drive up to his back door in dusty pickups or ATV’s. Lying in the back are examples of subsistence living Alaskan style. Moose, Elk, Bear and other game feed the folks well up here. How well? I dare you to put Wagyu beef up against the flavor and texture of a grilled Moose Tenderloin. Your average adult Moose weighs in at well over a thousand pounds. Nate and a small crew of seasonal butchers, often graduates of the state penitentiary, cut over 150,000 pounds of Moose alone during hunting season.
This morning a local farmer dropped off the family pig for processing. It hung on the hooks in very poor condition. Nate succinctly let us know his thoughts. Killed in the spring instead of the fall it was very lean. The slaughter technique was beyond bad. It looked like it had been tied to the back of a truck and dragged on the highway to skin it. This pig was an example of why Nate was hosting our workshop. He agreed with Francois, we needed to recapture the quality of a civilization that loves and respects it’s food. A barbarian had handled this unfortunate animal.
But that didn’t stop Nate from doing his best. His job was to make the finished product look as good as possible and earn a living wage. After all profit is not a four-letter word, Loss is. The hog hung on the overhead rail by two hooks, one in the tendon of each rear hoof. Nate stood on the cement in front of it. He wore work boots and a butcher’s apron over his t-shirt and jeans. Hanging at his right hip was a flat holster with a small utility grade boning knife, a larger blade and a honing steel. His bone saw was hanging off one hoof. A foot away was his band saw and at the end of it was a cutting table and bins for sorting the cuts. I wanted to film a production butcher at work so he waited a moment while I prepared. I held the camera up, he said, “Ready?” and drew his knife.
It was carcass to chops in twelve minutes, a blur of blades and flesh. Boning knife to sacrum, down through the hip, a bit a saw work and the right hindquarter fell away. He hits the switch on the band saw and it whines to life. Right hindquarter to saw, slice and the hoof goes in the can, slice and the hock hits the bin, slice the shank hit’s the bin and the rest is cut into ham and bone. Boning knife to left rear quarter and abdomen falls to the saw. One cut down the spine and then each side is cut rhythmically into short ribs, spare ribs, chops, tenderloin, and what was left of the belly became bacon. I was inspired. I walked into the inner kitchen to break my own hog.
Mine was just one side of a healthy specimen when I started. It took me three hours to finish and by the time I was done it was evident who in the room was the barbarian. Francois walked up to me at one point and in an affable way made a mincing motion with his hands and said, “Here it looks as if little rats have been chewing!”
April 18, 2012
The heads brined cured over night. We deboned them first thing this morning. Each of us started the day with a blank stare from Miss Piggy. Her gaze from the cutting board was pale and vacant. Francois started first. He casually flensed the entire mass of soft tissue from the skull in a single unfolded unit. Not one to be intimidated by fifty years of experience I began hacking away in my own primitive style. We put the bones and scraps into a pot with a few vegetables and aromatic herbs to simmer. It will eventually render a ridiculously rich stock. Both the meat and stock will be used in our Headcheese and a Bolognese sauce for one of our kitchen lunches.
Later we moved on to mixing and filling sausage casings with Salame Nostrano, Sopressata Calabrese and Chorizo Soria. For lunch we raided the aging closet. There were dozens of salami and hams hanging from Francois’ busy November workshop as well as some of Nick’s recent products. A layer of fine white mold coated most of the meats. We tried several from November for lunch put up against some of Nick’s and a few from a Bosnian Salumiere down in California who’s national trademark seems to be the addition of a light smoking to every product.
Once again I immersed myself in the subject at hand. Nate’s Coffee infused salame was tasty and according to Francios technically very well finished. The Bosnian meats barely got a nod. Francois questions why they must smoke everything they make. By the time we were finished I was anticipating an ice-cold pint of Midnight Sun Porter.
Friday April 20, 2012
Work proceeds well. As the team member with baking skills I’ve been in the corner making dough for our Pate’ en croute and a bit of bread for a sophisticated pig in a blanket, “Saucison de Leon en Brioche.” I can’t help feel it was also my knife skills that got me the job. Our dry cured products, the salami and hams will not be ready for this weeks banquet but there are plenty of choices hanging in the box from November’s team. Our fresh pork products are coming along fine. The Frankfurter’s emulsification was finely chopped and rich. They poached off with a delightful snap on the first bite. Our selection of Pate’ includes centers of pork liver or turkey tenderloin marinated in Crovossier. The Rellettes will be smooth and sit nicely with the baguettes we will get from the uncompromisingly good Fire Island Bakery in Anchorage. The stock for the headcheese is a translucent amber and when cold solid enough to bounce a dime on.
We gathered around the large bowl chopper several times today and stuck our hand into it while it was spinning. How else can you get the feel for the conditioning of the lean meat as it chops and turns? After batches of Saucisson de Lyon, Chorizo, Frankfurter and Salame Nostrano my hands began to understand the change that meat proteins go through with the addition of salts and the mechanical action of chopping. It gains almost a doughy consistency before the addition of the rest of the ingredients. We had our hands in bowls of fresh pigs blood while we prepared three gallons of boudin noir. We followed our leader and tasted the blood for flavor. In fact we tasted each forcemeat before it went to the casings. Tomorrow is our last morning to finish and assemble our menu. It went well today so we don’t anticipate too much work on Saturday.
Saturday April 21, 2012
Several steps are require to make a proper pate’ en croute. There is the pie dough and it’s handling, there is the pate’ and it’s garnishes and after baking there is the addition of the aspic or jelly to fill the gaps inside created by steam between the crust and filling. If there is a problem in the early part of the process a simple job becomes a complex chain of repairs and half-assed triage. Fortunately I am an expert at half-assed triage. The dough made with freshly rendered lard was stunning in it’s flavor, texture and handling qualities. The pate’ was fresh and delicately seasoned. The trouble started as it baked. It expanded from the heat in the oven and upon cooling contracted leaving fault-lines and crevasses’ across the top and down the sides of the assembly. No time to ruminate on what I did wrong, how would I be able to fill the gaps in my terrines with jelly if it was all going to leak out? How could I serve this? Am I going to let down the team? My lateral thinking took over. It was essentially a plumbing problem. I needed to plug the holes in the crust before pouring in the warm aspic. A bit of raw Pie dough might patch a small hole but these terrines looked like a train wreck. I unmolded each terrine and lifted it gently onto a sheet of saran wrap careful to put all the dough pieces back in the same place they started.
Mitigate the damage. Work with your back to the chef. It was all coming back to me now from my days at the CIA. Francois walked passed at one point when the pate’ lay on the table looking like road-kill. Wisely he walked on. Once enveloped completely in Saran I slid them back into the mold and injected them with aspic from a narrow funnel. The finished slices will look perfect on the silver platters as they enter the dining room, if they gel up in time.
Saturday evening April 21, 2012
We transferred our finished products to the Turkey Red restaurant. Jason and Stephan blended in with the kitchen and crew and got our tightly rolled porketta roasts into the oven. As they cooked we helped prepare the rest of the food. We laid out platter after platter of sliced Salumi. The pate’ firmed up and sliced well. I needed a chart to reference the identities of each variety of Charuterie. After that last couple of hours in the kitchen we straightened our hair, took off our aprons and tucked in our shirttails to sit down in the dining room and enjoy our food with some of Turkey Reds best customers. We ate like kings and had a wine pared with every course. After dinner we retired to an Alaskan saloon close by to unwind and toast our teacher and generous hosts.
We add bacterial cultures to our salame to create a healthy environment where great new flavors develop. Francoise handled our workshop in the same manner. We were showered with valuable wisdom of his art and craft. And for good measure he inoculated us with a longing for the small farm and the neighborhood Salumiere. He shared his vision of an economy more palatable then the sterile factory feeding that fills our stomach today.
I’m home now making arrangements to assist a farmer with finishing his pig for slaughter and working on a way to procure a quart or two of fresh pigs blood and a supply of freshly rendered lard.