With patience and creativity, making pâté and cured meats from scratch is not out of reach for home chefs.
Salt and fat. These two delicious words have a strange hold over us, whispering of their delights, inviting us to eat them. There is no better place to experience this perfect union than charcuterie.
Charcuterie, simply put, is the art of preserving meat and meat products. This is often done by curing meat with salt, possibly along with sugar and spices. It often involves fat, either as part of the finished product or even as a cooking medium. This was originally done to lengthen the shelf life of certain meats, or to use up leftovers, ensuring that nothing went to waste.
Charcuterie can be simple or sublime, encompassing all kinds of food preparations. People have practiced it in various forms all over the world. The French have their pâté, the Germans have beautiful würst, the Italians have mastered the art of proscuitto while the Spanish have jamòn iberico, a prized cured ham.
It’s easy to note the prominence of pork in charcuterie. The reason for that is fat. Pigs produce a fat unlike any other. It’s creamy, white, and unlike beef or lamb fats, it does not have a pronounced taste. This makes it a perfect conduit for flavour.
For some people, charcuterie is not only a way of eating, but a way of life. Frederic Tandy runs Ratinaud, a charcuterie on Gottingen Street in Halifax. Born in Limoges, France, Tandy grew up eating his grandparent’s pâté de campagne or country pâté. Today, he makes his own pâté and other charcuterie, including sausages and more.
He thinks more home chefs should try making their own pâté. “Anyone can do them as long as they have a meat grinder or food processor,” says Tandy. “You cook it and press it. It’s not rocket science.” The only part of making a pâté that can be troublesome is in properly seasoning the dish. Since it’s served cold, paté needs more seasoning than warm dishes. That’s because we don’t perceive salt or sweetness as well in cold dishes.
“What I usually recommend to people is to do little patties [of the pâté] and cook it and cool it,” Tandy says. “That way you don’t ruin the whole thing and you have an idea if your seasoning is right.”
“After a year you can get this kind of sweetness that just comes out naturally.”
Along with his unctuous pâté, Tandy also makes cured meats, including duck proscuitto. For him, the real magic of charcuterie is how time affects flavours. “It’s quite amazing,” he says. “With proscuitto, you can have a salty meat but after a year, you can get this kind of sweetness that just comes out naturally.”
If there were a runner-up to pork in the world of charcuterie, it would be duck. Fatty members of the fowl family, ducks have fat that’s prized as a cooking material. Perhaps nowhere else is that fat more appreciated than in duck confit, a dish where salted and cured duck cooks in its own fat, creating a rich and luxurious dish.
It was a meal of duck confit that inspired Michael Ruhlman to write a book about charcuterie. Titled Charcuterie: The Craft Of Salting, Smoking, and Curing, Ruhlman’s bestselling book from 2005 is now an authority on the subject. The book even inspired an online event in 2011 known as “Charcutepalooza.” People around the world make their own charcuterie and blog about it. “I can’t tell you how many people have told me that the bacon in that book changed their lives,” the Cleveland, Ohio native says. “[Charcuterie] is a craft that illuminates the way food works.”
In his view, that speaks to how people are looking to demystify food. “It’s part of a broader movement in cooking generally,” says Ruhlman. “Charcuterie captures the do-it-yourself ethos. Also, it’s a really cool craft that anyone can do and have good results with and are really surprised by.”
Pork and duck are not the only meats you can cure into charcuterie. You can also turn beef and even fish into all kinds of beautiful dishes. Gravlax or lox is one of the most popular forms of cured salmon. And jerk is, at its core, cured meat that is air-dried.
But some people like to create charcuteries from meats that aren’t on every table. Jeremy Charles, chef at Raymond’s in St. John’s, Newfoundland, has moose tongue on his charcuterie platter. “Moose is quite a staple in the Newfoundland diet,” he points out. “It’s nice to break it down and then cure it, smoke it and shave it paper-thin.”
The dish is a novel way to serve moose, appealing to people new to the meat and to those who grew up on it. So far, Charles’s experimentation is paying off—Raymond’s has become a top restaurant in Canada, named the best in the land by En Route magazine.
For Charles, charcuterie is one of the greatest things to eat. “You get a lot of different flavours and textures,” he says. “It’s not like a bowl of pasta, where you have to wolf it down before it gets cold. You can pick at it, share it.” Noting the versatility of charcuterie, he doesn’t think it’s only for restaurants—or best prepared by skilled chefs. “It’s pretty cool to make yourself,” he says. “It’s a nice thing to entertain with your own homemade charcuterie. Some people might not even believe you made it [laughs].”
Before making it yourself, Charles suggests reading up on the subject. “Obviously the Internet is full of information,” he says. “Be sure you’re doing it right, properly aging it and storing it. Take your time.”
Timing is important when making charcuterie. It is rarely a quick fix and some dishes take days, weeks or even years before they are truly perfect. And as with all food preparation, sometimes a dish may not work the first time. Your sausage may not mix properly, you might have over salted the duck. But that is the charm of charcuterie. At its core, charcuterie is cooking by culinary alchemy—a process that preserves and often improves what is simple and understated, turning it into something glorious.
Recipes featured in this article:
Know your salt
Most recipes will ask for kosher or sea salt. This is because table salt contains iodine, which can affect the taste. Substitutions are not advisable. Some recipes will ask for “pink salt.” Pink salt is sodium nitrite. Nitrites help prevent the growth of bad bacteria in charcuterie, especially in the case of dry cured foods. They also keep the meat from turning grey. Nitrite or nitrate-free bacons may have less of a pinkish hue but this is purely aesthetic. You can find pink salt from most meat shops and butchers or order it online.
The best charcuterie from around the world:
Rillettes – Similar to pâté, the meat in a rillette is often cooked first in fat, like confit. Wild hare or rabbit rillettes are especially popular as these meats are not very fatty and can be dry. Cooking them as a confit first creates a more luxurious dish.
Proscuitto – A classic of Italian charcuterie, proscuitto is a cured leg of ham that is left to air dry for months or even years, depending on the producer. The best are produced in San Daniele and Parma. Due to European labelling, only proscuitto from those areas following strict regulations can be called proscuitto di Parma or proscuitto di San Daniele. Those regulations do not apply in North America, therefore any ham cured in a proscuitto fashion can be called Proscuitto di Parma or San Daniele. Ask before you buy.
Pancetta – A cured and seasoned pork belly that is rolled into a log and hung to dry. Similar to bacon but with a sweeter and often more porky flavour than American or English-style bacons. Jamón ibérico – Arguably the most well regarded charcuterie product in the world, this cured ham is also created under strict regulations. To be true jamón ibérico, only black-footed pigs are used. Before their slaughter, the pigs eat a diet of acorns that bring on the distinctive flavour of the fat and flesh. The legs are cured and hung for a year or more. This cured pork product costs anywhere from $75 to $100 per pound.
Vietnamese charcuterie – Vietnamese charcuterie includes meat pastes known as giò which is the basis for many more refined sausages and patés, such as roasted cinnamon sausages, known as cha que.