Dry curing is very old news. Millennia before the Icebox Age, inventive eaters discovered that air drying, like smoking, fermenting and confiting, gave fresh flesh a new lease on life. Today the process remains largely unchanged: Raw meat, whether left whole or ground and stuffed into casings, is salted heavily and hung to dry, thus thwarting bacteria that spoil meat and sicken eaters. (Additional fermentation, used in soppressata and other salamis, develops “good” bacteria whose acidic environments keep pathogenic ones at bay.) Happily, dry curing brings with it a whole spectrum of extraordinary flavors and textures; whoever said “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear” never had a slice of real country ham.
That dry-cured meats happen to taste spectacularly good is a fact not lost on 21st-century New Yorkers. Menus all over town have experienced a surge in salumi, a trend Jeffrey Steingarten, Vogue’s food writer and a longtime observer of the New York dining landscape, credits Mario Batali for kickstarting. As Carol Diuguid, senior editor of the Zagat NYC Restaurant Guide, points out, “It fits in nicely with the current obsession with pork and offal in their every permutation. Also, wine bars and eateries serving tapas-style small plates have proliferated in recent times, and for them the charcuterie plate is almost a defining element.”
Restaurants and food shops citywide now offer hams of various nationalities from pigs of various diets (acorns, hazelnuts, peanuts, whey)–not to mention salamis and saucissons, lomo and lardo, even prosciutti from duck and wild boar. In New York, we honor our obsessions by building businesses around them (see rice pudding, cupcakes, mac ‘n cheese), and the latest indication that meat mania has reached fever pitch are the late-2008 openings of Cesare Casella’s Salumeria Rosi and Murray’s Real Salumi, where the refrigerated cases and encased meats are front and center.
Many restaurants serve imported prosciutto di Parma or jamón ibérico or the domestic incarnations cured stateside by producers like Fra’Mani, La Quercia or New York’s own Salumeria Biellese, whose products show up on white tablecloths all over town. Recently, a certain adjective began popping up next to salumi descriptions on city menus: house-cured. But just as quickly, it seemed to disappear.
Ask city chefs about their in-house curing and you’ll meet feigned ignorance or furtive glances cast over shoulders, or else you’ll be sworn to secrecy: While kitchen curing is on the rise, nearly all the chefs I spoke to for this story would talk only on condition of anonymity. It’s as if house-cured meats were a banned substance– and, in a way, they are. Like sous vide’s spike a few years back, dry curing’s rise in popularity has caught the attention not only of trendspotting bloggers, but also of the thermometer-toting Health Department, which, unswayed by DIY initiative or the umami of perfect prosciutto, has been cracking down on would-be charcuterie all over town. Three years ago department authorities famously poured bleach on cured meats at Il Buco because they were not kept below 41°F–an event many chefs still recall with horror: “Well, you know what happened to Il Buco .” Shudder.
You’ve heard the line that laws are like sausages–it’s better not to see them being made. Evidently laws about sausages are ugliest of all.
Certainly the DOH has noble intentions–protecting the noshing masses from nasties like E. coli, salmonella and staph. But thousands of years have demonstrated that keeping properly salted meat at the preferred 60°F and 70 percent humidity is perfectly safe. For fermented sausages, like chorizo and coppa, such conditions are necessary for the good bacteria to work their magic. And few small restaurants can afford a dedicated temperature-controlled space. Chef Alex Guarnaschelli at Butter explained, “Basically, I don’t have the means financially to create a whole dry-aging and curing room to make my own salami and dry-age my beef. I wish I did.”
So while no one’s heard of a diner falling ill from a restaurant’s house-cured charcuterie–and it’s generally easy for a well-trained cook to tell if cured meat smells funny or has sprouted troublesome mold–the Health Department’s rules are as rigid as frozen sausage and, for some chefs, as hard to swallow. Chef Ignacio Mattos still seems stupefied by what went down at Il Buco: department authorities did not check the condition of the meat itself, just its temperature. “More than sad, it was ridiculous,” he says. “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.” For now, Mattos says, they’ll just make lardo and headcheese, both of which are kept refrigerated.
As with sous vide, the Health Department intends to kill pathogens with paperwork, requiring kitchens to provide an approved Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) plan before taking pancetta into their own hands. Elliot Marcus, associate commissioner for the DOH ‘s Bureau of Food Safety, says such plans “standardize the process to ensure the food is safe every time it’s produced.” There isn’t a general set of dry-curing guidelines, he explains, because everyone develops their own recipes.
Marcus cites Del Posto among the restaurants with a DOH-approved dry-curing HACCP plan in place, but such sanctioned status doesn’t mean a chef seeks the dry-cured limelight; representatives of several restaurants with approved certification declined to be included in this story. They all told me variations of the same thing: “Why bring ourselves unwanted attention from the Health Department? That would be dumb.”
Through the HACCP program, developed by NASA in the ’60s and more commonly used by industrial food manufacturers– in making juice or processing seafood, for example–a producer identifies points at which something could go wrong and addresses how it will minimize risk. “It’s quite a lengthy process,” one cook (we’ll call him Mike) told me, especially if the restaurant starts with whole pigs, as his does for its secret charcuterie program: “It goes incredibly in depth, all the way back to the farm, how the pig’s killed, at what temperature it’s killed, how it’s transported and at what temperature.”
Formulating a HACCP plan and getting it approved by the Health Department can take months; Marcus says many restaurants hire consultants to help with the process. But even that would be too much for Mike, who says, “A little restaurant like us, we can’t afford the time and effort to sort that out.” Instead they keep their meat under wraps in their wine storage room, which, like the laundry rooms and locked closets in other restaurants I heard about, isn’t typically inspected by the Health Department.
Steingarten thinks it’s important to make the distinction between curing smaller whole cuts and sausages and hams. “It’s not rocket science to cure guanciale,” he said. But “salami is not an entirely easy thing to make. Sausages like saucisson de Lyon, garlic sausages, kielbasa and all of those take a lot of skill and equipment. It’s not likely that a restaurant is going to be able to do that, in any quantity. Almost all restaurants that want to make something like salami or soppressata should actually be buying it and not trying to reinvent the wheel.”
So if good product is readily available and making it in-house is a bureaucratic no-no, why do restaurants bother? For one thing, it’s because increasing numbers of chefs are getting whole animals straight from farmers. The atrocities of factory farming and related environmental concerns have prompted cooks and eaters to seek out animals raised right, and by buying direct, chefs know how they were treated every step of the way. Farmers operating on a small scale (dozens of animals as opposed to the thousands that crowd industrial operations) often prefer to sell whole animals.
Part of the nose-to-tail trend stems from the legitimacy and satisfaction gained from knowing how to dispatch entire beasts and turn them into dinner. One chef, whose restaurant has had a clandestine charcuterie program for eight years, takes the philosophical approach: “My journey as a cook is to recover traditional techniques and learn how to use the entire animal.” But in practical terms, buying whole animals can be far more economical than buying small cuts in large quantities. Besides saving on processing by breaking down whole sides in-house, kitchens can use less desirable parts to stretch their food-procurement dollars. Sausages, guanciale and lardo go for many times more than the cheap cuts they’re made from.
Ancient preservation methods are also a necessity for chefs literally grappling with an entire carcass, especially in small restaurants where margins and storage quarters are tight. “It wasn’t like, ‘I want to make sausage,'” Matt, another cook, told me. “It was: ‘I just bought a pig, I got eight pounds of loin out of this thing, and I’ve got 200 pounds left, so I better learn quick how to make good use out of it.'”
But all the cooks I spoke with agree that the most fundamental reason they cure is taste. “It actually is the way I like to eat,” said one. “I’m much happier sitting at the table with some rustic bread and some really good salumi or charcuterie or kielbasa and some condiments and golden mustard. It’s the dining experience I most personally enjoy.”
Guarnaschelli said, “Chefs are just giant envelopes filled with taste memories they want to recreate in their own way. You eat a salami somewhere all those years ago that sticks with you. You inevitably come to a point where you want to make the stuff yourself.”
Several chefs I spoke to are intent on making their dry curing legit and are setting up their own production facilities, with the requisite storage conditions and space, whether independently or in partnership with a farmer or butcher. The Health Department has no plans to make certification more accessible, but perhaps with a few establishments leading the way in setting production standards, more restaurants will find the road to certification a little less thorny. In the meantime, psssssst–pass the soppressata.
Photo credit: Michael Harlan Turkell.