Based in Portland, Oregon, Harriet Fasenfest gardens, cooks, writes, teaches, and speaks on the issues of food security and justice. Her book, A Householder's Guide to the Universe, was published in fall 2010. She is currently working on a new book and curriculum guide for teaching householding and householding economics.
I was excited. It was Pork Day 2011. The 253-pound Chester-White cross raised by the great folks at Square Peg Farm was ready for slaughter.
On Monday, they brought the animal to a USDA abattoir in Dayton, Oregon, and on Wednesday, the great folks at Northwest Premier Meats picked it up for butchering. On Thursday, my friend Myo and I went to pick up the first of our order — the stuff that we wanted fresh for curing on Friday. The rest we would pick up on Monday the following week, once it was frozen.
Understanding the reasons for this transport shuffle is part of the learning curve. On the production side, it’s about regulations. The rules for retail are different than for farm shares, but the choices are no less complicated. Divining a line between the right farmer, butcher, and your home is no small task.
Of course, in my perfect world all the steps from raising to curing the animal would happen on the farm, but this is not my perfect world, so I make concessions. Still, I have been lucky and/or committed enough to finding the best I can within the limitations of our current system.
At the other end of the formula, in my kitchen, I continue to sort out the logic of this householding movement. Besides the extra fridge and two chest freezers I bought for storage, there is my need to understand the art of butchery. This one-time artisanal skill has been reduced to standardized cuts. Whether farm-share or retail, your choices are often based on the industry’s definition of “efficiency.” But efficiency translates differently in a householding kitchen. Which is why finding the right butcher (which I have), giving the right cutting instructions (which I do), and paying for what it is all worth is so important.
I cannot overstate this last fact. We have paid too little for too long. Shifting old systems will require a shared effort. Still, I get my money’s worth by adding value at home.
The notion of “value added” is not new. In essence, you start with raw ingredients and by the addition of this or that, you create a sum greater than its parts. But “value” is a subjective word. For industry, the effort suggests profits — corn syrup to tomatoes for ketchup, filler in chicken for nuggets.
For me it suggests frugality, stewardship, great food, and, most importantly, a life quite apart from the one that industry, global trade, and market-based economies cannot help but thrust upon us. Still, each in-home calibration brings a new adventure. Like finding the right purveyors, like disseminating butchering charts, and now, having fresh meat for curing. Who knew?
I think about blueberries. Big and fat going into the freezer, sad and sloppy once defrosted. The texture is never the same; the cell walls are broken by the expanding ice crystals in the fruit. So fresh meat for curing makes sense, but it’s easier said than done. Luckily I have an obliging butcher. I offer up my fresh list: back legs for prosciutto (aitchbone removed, trotter and shank attached); one side of belly left whole for smoked bacon (I will drop that off at Otto’s) and the other side cut in two-pound sections for making pancetta (or tesa, its unrolled cousin). Fresh shanks off the picnic for smoking, both jowls for guanciale, the trim bag for miscellaneous fresh sausage, and the back fat for making lardo.
Some stuff I know how to make. Others, I do not. Another calibration. I turn to an old friend.
I first met Fred Carlo in the late 1980s in his Salumeria di Carlo. As an early champion of all things pork, cured or just plain delicious, Fred stocked his case with recipes gleaned during an apprenticeship in Italy. Those were heady days in Portland, Oregon. Kids today imagine they have invented our hometown food scene, but I tell you it is not so. The trailblazers and heroes are still among us, and, if you are lucky, you can still taste their wares.
These days, after turning over his shop to the more bricks-and-mortar-bound enthusiasts, you can find Fred’s products for sale in retail outlets or, for more immediate gratification, at the Portland Farmers Market, where his grilled northern or spicy Italian sausages attract hordes of savvy eaters. Please do not mistake his presence there as anything but your very good fortune since, despite the slimmed-down selection, Fred knows exactly what he is doing. Which is why I sheepishly called him for a tutorial on prosciutto.
To my surprise, he agreed to help, which went a long way toward calming my nerves. I mean, I am bold, but not that bold. Staring down a 28-pound ham leg with an eye to making prosciutto can be a paralyzing proposition.
As it turns out, there are only a few steps for curing prosciutto. First you coax out, and blot off, whatever blood may be lingering in the vein along the ham bone by pressing, in upward motions, from the shank to the top of the hip bone. Next, you massage and soften the muscles with a rolling pin or your hands in order to encourage salt uptake in the flesh. Then you pack a salt-and-water paste onto the exposed flesh, giving special attention to the meat surrounding the exposed hip bone. Once that’s completed, you set the leg on a rack above a drip pan and put it in the fridge for a full two weeks before repeating the process.
This month of salting is followed by another month wherein the leg rests in the fridge with nothing but cool air and hope surrounding it. According to Fred, it’s only then that we will remove it to hang for a year or more in a cool, dark corner of my basement.
And while curing meats for retail might suggest using nitrites or nitrates, Fred would have none of it. Just salt and time from time immemorial.
The rest of the afternoon was spent working on the tesa and guanciale from a recipe in Paul Bertolli’s Cooking By Hand (sans the Insta Cure). The recipe for making lardo came from Fred. Last year I used the back fat for barding and saddling lean cuts of beef (as in grass-fed) and rendering out for lard. This year the thick, squared slabs of skinned back fat were piled high and layered between fragrant ground spices (Fred did not reveal the exact mix — not yet, that is), rosemary, garlic, and salt, and set to cure in a crock. When it’s fully cured, we’ll slice the lardo thin and serve it on hunks of rustic bread with a glass of red wine for great peasant eating.
Sorry if the notion of eating lard freaks you out, but it sounds like good eating to me. Some days I imagine that peasant eating and living is exactly what I am after. Yes, the new urban peasant. I have written about this on my householding blog, if only in deference to a life and word that has been much maligned. But as I wrote then (and now), I am worlds away from that way of living. Still, that word and life share a spirit with this value-added householding life. It shares in the humility and effort that goes into the endless days of endless tasks and the recalibration of a life and system that has long been forgotten or dismissed as unrealistic.
But just as I know this life is not for everyone, so do I know it is not everyone who will be eating my prosciutto or lardo when the time is right. Let’s just call it the price of entry. Of course, you can just go to your local shop and buy it up, but I doubt, when all is said and done, it will hold quite the same value.
Beginning in March, in Portland, Oregon, Harriet Fasenfest will teach a class, “Householding Throughout the Year: You, Your Garden, Kitchen, and Home.” Visit the Preserve website for details.
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