Before I begin to write anything else, let me first start by thanking Michael Ruhlman (@ruhlman) for writing two books on this. I know celeb chefs are all the rage these days, but he is not in that category. While any cook or chef have something to lend to our knowledge base, Michael Ruhlman is a true artisan, one who goes back in time to figure it all out (like most of us should) before we embark on new technique and trends. I can write a thousand pages on noteworthy cooks and recipe or cookbook authors, but It was only through his book “Charcuterie” that I learned of a company in Oregon called “Olympic Provisions” who have come as close to the “old world” stuff I know. I heard of Mario Batali’s father too (in fact an old friend of mine is a friend of his), but for now, another blog for another time.
Charcuterie, quite simply, was and is the art of curing meat before refrigeration. It could be anything from ham or bacon, to dry sausage and even pate. I won’t say its extinct now, but its very much an endangered food art form. Its something our ancestors did regularly as if second nature, but as I once said “once our elders die, the knowledge dies with them” – my mother always criticized me for that remark I made in a National Magazine on Italian culture itself, but sadly, its true. Even when I asked her, she merely scribbled a recipe on a scrap of paper with un-exact ingredients. And, there were no exact ingredients, in fact, I don’t even use them in traditional dishes. You just know by sight what the amount is, and you know that if you are using large fresh breadcrumbs or fine ground breadcrumbs, somehow you just know after making something hundreds of times, what the right amount is without measuring.
But, when you don’t know, things like charcuterie become a science, and it must be followed like a science. That is not to say you don’t follow some common sense, and make adjustments, but you definitely need to follow a formula.
This brings me to a recurring topic, my dear friend Vittorio, a Calabrese immigrant, friend, neighbor and nearly a relative because of our ties. Unfortunately, this Lent season brings some bittersweet memories. He passed away a week before Easter. And last year we sat down to eat lunch on a Friday afternoon. He proudly brought out some sopresatta he made and cured himself. He made it back in January, hung it in his cantina (a secret “cave” of sorts outside the house not far from his basement) and there it was a few months later, ready to be served.
Vittorio was a neat freak, a perfectionist and didn’t like anything less than perfect. And, he didn’t like mold on his sopresatta, so he covered the casings with olive oil to prevent mold from growing. Most don’t mind the mold. Besides, you slice what you want, and tear or peel off the “protective” skin or casing before you eat it.
Ultimately, in the Spring, late March or early April, this is what we would sit down to. Green oil cured olives with fennel seeds from the garden, his cured sopresatta or prosciutto (and I never really knew which he cured how or if that was the correct name) and of course, some fresh mozzarella and provolone he bought at an Italian market. Bread was a given, as well as anchovies from a can. This was as traditional and native Calabrian as you can get here in the USA.
And, I will never forget the first meal we sat down together to after a long winter of a lot of snow. At least 12′ or 30cm each and every week kept us busy at our own homes clearing snow. So, when it finally did get warmer and the snow finally did melt, I made it over to his house (I always walked, never drove, knowing that 2-3 glasses of homemade wine would be consumed). So, we sat, and he brings out the salumi. I hesitate, and he asks why. I tell him “its the first Friday in Lent, we can’t eat meat”. Normally Victor would either laugh at foolish things, but sometimes appear slightly irritated. I never really saw him mad in all the 25+ years I knew him but he calmly said “Non preoccuparti per le cose che si mettono in bocca, preoccuparsi per le parole che vengono fuori di esso…” as my mother would say. And, translated in his dialect, basically meant “don’t worry about what you put in your mouth, worry about the words that come out of it”. This was true of food, and especially wine if one thought they have had too much. Food, wine, its precious, its a gift, especially to the Italians. Waste or leaving food uneaten was the greatest sin. I laughed and realized the truth and for us Italians and Catholics who obeyed the Church and all its rules all our lives, at that moment, it was never more appropriate than to enjoy the fruits of the winter labor. The advice of not eating meat was for those who do not know what it is like to go without, or who do not appreciate all they have. But for people like Victor who only live a simple life and never indulge to excess, the might not ever be a better time to enjoy a few slices of homemade salumi on a Friday with some wine, salad, vegetables from the garden or even pizza.
Unfortuantely, Vittorio passed away a week before Easter after a 1+ year battle with cancer. For those who do not know Cancer and its treatment. It kills your appetite, everything tastes bitter, almost revolting. There is no greater curse, other than the disease itself, not to be able to enjoy food you farm, create, cook and enjoy from garden to table. If someone were to tell me, you can continue to eat and enjoy life for the next 7 months, but then die, or you can go through cancer treatments and not enjoy any part of life for the next year, but might survive, I think I know my choice. Let me live a great life for 7 more months, because to suffer through 1+ years and then might die anyway (as is the case with chemo), living longer is not always good. Maybe for our friends and relatives, but never for the person with the terminal illness.
Ok,well maybe I go way off topic here, but not really in my mind. I guess my point was, enjoy live, enjoy it in moderation, and please, do not regard cured meats, fats steaks, pasta or cheeses as anything evil that will kill you. Eat it every day, in mass consumptions, they yes, perhaps, but otherwise. Enjoy these fine food items in moderation and you will e fine.
So, missing Vittorio’s fine cured salumi, I got a tip from a great cook and food advocate known as Michael Ruhlman. I don’t know him personally outside of Twitter conversations but this guy is the real deal. No fancy TV shows, no fancy slicer/dicer commercials, yes he has products, but none that he would not use in his kitchen. So when he writes a book on charcuterie and visits Olympic Meat Provisions in Oregon, I can’t see any reason not to order from them knowing that I can’t make my own this year and my dear friend Vittorio is gone and I can’t enjoy his.
The Sampler package I got (since it varies upon availability) contained (in the order I sampled them):
- Salcisson Sec: Incredible, simply garlic & black pepper.
- Sopressata: Spicy, garlic, oregano, chili flake.
- Chorizo Navarre: Spicy, hot, flavorful, rich, smoked paprika and cayenne pepper.
- Saucisson d’Alcase: Cinnamon, Clove, Nutmeg
- Saucisson d’Arlens: Salt only
- Finnochiona: Fennel, garlic, salt
- Cacciatore: Caraway, Coriander
- Chorizo Rioja: Spiced Paprika, Garlic, Oregano, awesome flavorful spicy chorizo
- Salame Nola: Allspice, chili flake, black pepper
- Loukanika: Cumin, Garlic, Orange Zest
- Salchichon: Clove, Garlic, Black Pepper
- Salcisson Sec – Wow. Even if the other 5 suck, this one has already won me over. And, as a foodie, that is what its really all about. Sorting through all the horrible foods, giving every single one a fair chance, but finding the one you want to keep around forever. Its the same with wine, friends, and so many other things in life.
- Sopressata – Spicy and good aftertaste, at first tasted much like the Salcisson Sec, but the chili flake definitely gives it a kick, however, I did not taste much of the oregano. Anything as good as the first is equally as good.
- Chorizo Navarre – Best dry chorizo ever. Smoked Paprika and Cayenne pepper. I’ve love chorizo for over 20 years, I love them cooked, in paella, dry, but this is truly the best, and I can tell you for one simple reason. The small bits of fat do not become impossible to chew and don’t get stuck in my teeth (and I have perfect teeth). Sorry if I am too graphic here, but every “quality” chorizo I’ve tried have left me chewing until I get to a hard piece of fat I eventually give up on and have to spit out. Not this time, its all chewable and very rich, just enough moist and the best I’ve ever had. I’d serve these in small but thicker slices with a toothpick for tapas.
- Saucisson d’Alcase – Cinnamon, Clove, Nutmeg. My first reaction was, its good, but its not my favorite. Then I looked at the ingredients, and saw the spices which would seem odd to an Italian, and I must say, they totally work. Its a unique taste, its delicious and I tried a little more and was on board. Again, while it might not be my favorite far, that is simply my own taste and preferences, its something to try at least once, the quality alone speaks for itself.
- Saucisson d’Arlens – Salt only, obviously you get more of the meat taste and not as much flavor outside of the “salami”. Not my favorite, but by no means bad.
- Finocchinoa – Fennel, Garlic, Salt. Spicy, good, the fennel is sometimes hard to taste, and when you do taste it, you expect it to be in a fresh sausage. Its good, its actually great, but its only my next to last of those I like most from this company. The other thing I noticed is that this is not only shorter, but smaller in diameter. I am wondering why that is. All of the products I got were consistent, not perfect in size, or length, but almost certainly in quality and diameter. Here, the diameter was at least 25% smaller than the other 5 I tried. I don’t mind so much, I am just curious as to why? Did I get a randomly small stick? Is it because of the way it was cured? Only curious, not critical about this selection.
- Cacciatore – Caraway, Coriander. At first I found this a bit bland, perhaps not bland but not with a lot of taste, but it did end with a spicy finish. Not one of my favorites, but no question of the quality. After a few days, the flavors really developed. The longer you leave these meats, the more they dry out, but in this case it attributed to great flavors.
- Chorizo Rioja – Smoked Paprika, Garlic, Oregano. Great spicy flavor, very rich, delicious, not sure if its better or equal to the Chorizo Navarre, but I’ve rarely met a chorizo I did not like. Its always the smoked paprika that makes chorizo.
- Salame Nola – The black pepper hits you first at some bites, then the chili flake in another, sometimes both at once. No evidence of the allspice, but I am sure its there.
- Loukanika – The most dominant flavor here is the cumin. It hits you instantly, like you know what it is but cannot immediately name it. Its cumin and personally always associate it with Asian Indian food. I love Indian food, but cumin in my mind should not be a part of charcuterie or artisan cured meats. Its ok if it is, but not for me. Again, no question about quality or consistency, just not my favorite in flavor profiles.
- Salchichon – Shorter than all the others, not sure why, but no problem, on to the testing and tasting. The clove is the dominant flavor here which really gives it a wonderful taste. You have to love clove (and I do) to love this variety.
So, in order of my preference, to my taste and liking (not everyone’s so please try, taste and judge yourself), these are my favorites, though all of them are on the same scale as worthy and worth the price, far exceeding all others.
- Salcisson Sec
- Chorizo Rioja
- Chorizo Navarre
- Salame Nola
- Saucisson d’Alcase
- Saucisson d’Arlens
This post will be followed up with more tasting and notes as well as my attempt to produce something that tries to come close to Victor’s, much less those I tasted here. Its not all about consistency, but about flavor, and there is a Russian saying that “the first pancake is always garbage”. I expect that like anything with anything, pancakes, meatballs or salami, the first will never compare to the 100th, as experience is everything. I miss my dear friend Victor, this photo was taken just weeks before his passing. I still had so much to learn from him, but more than that, I just miss sitting down and having lunch with him, regardless of what we were eating.
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