By Richard Adcock
Jeff Roberts begins his book on cured meats with a brief natural history of the hog, including a discussion of its diet and physical characteristics. It’s a sensible beginning, and one that tells you something important about Roberts himself: he’s a completist, and he’s been doing this work for a while.
Roberts was an early convert to Slow Food. In fact, his relationship with the organization helped start him on the path to writing Salted and Cured. “One thing that makes this book distinctive is that in 2001, I went to northern Lombardy with the help of Slow Food and learned to make violino di capra, which is goat prosciutto.” Roberts and a friend established a production protocol for violino di capra, which was nonexistent in the U.S. at the time. Roberts says there wasn’t much of a market for the product: “It’s restaurants basically, many of whom were willing to buy some once they learned about it. And that’s where Slow Food opened some very important doors.”
This is also the kind of intersection Roberts spends most of his book exploring: who’s out there curing meat in a traditional way, and how are they connecting with people who will buy their products? The assessment that charcuterie in the U.S. is better and more popular than ever before rings true, but Roberts lays out the how long and laborious process behind its overnight success.
You could also call these last few years a resurgence in meat curing—Americans aren’t strangers to the concept. In a more general sense, dried meat in the Americas the arrival of Europeans by hundreds of years—everything from caribou and elk to buffalo, dried for preservative purposes, comprised parts of pre-Columbian indigenous food culture.
“Curing,” in stricter terms, involves additives, generally salts and/or nitrates or nitrites. By this definition, the oldest American tradition has to be country ham. Though the likes of Sean Brock now conspicuously cook with country ham and demand is through the roof, country ham, like most “artisanal” products, was initally produced for personal use. “They weren’t really produced for sale, they were what you ate in the winter time,” says Roberts. In Salted and Cured, he examines the colonial-era history of smokehouses, when they were a fixture of every large estate, a vital part of the residents’ self-sufficiency.
Pockets of this practical tradition remain, for example in the Amish and Mennonite communities of Pennsylvania Dutch country, some of whom still make Lebanon Bologna in the traditional cold-smoked style. But country ham, no longer necessary for sustenance, had dwindled to a handful of traditional producers who meticulously maintain this laborious tradition.
Below: Charcuterie at the Taste Pavilion, Slow Food Nations 2008
But Roberts is optimistic about the vibrancy of traditional curing—and fermentation practices more generally—in the U.S. “Cured meat is not for the faint of heart,” he says. “It’s high-risk and expensive. And every thing you make, every process, has to have a plan for the Feds to reference.”
“But America has rediscovered the importance of fermentation. I’d go back to Fritz Maytag at Anchor Steam, and the wine makers in Napa in the ’70s. Then in the late ’70s into the ’80s, there’s the beginning of the craft beer renaissance, and in the ’80s the artisan cheese revival and baking bread, the ’90s you have fermented pickled veggies and that wave, and then bacon starts really taking off in the 2000s. People with disposal income are willing to buy good food, and there’s all these craft industries popping up. Slow Food is part of this broad change. Demand increases, and people are wanting something new. The other side has to do with supply. Chefs, restauranteurs, and anybody in the food business knows it’s a small margin business, and there’s waste when you’re serving just pork chops or steaks. Restaurants start buying whole carcasses, and they’re experimenting with using every part of the animal and making it pay. So they experiment with curing—sometimes under the radar, not always a great idea. But often they found great stuff.”
These are the kinds of people who feature prominently in Roberts’ book: the traditionalists alongside the experimenters. The science and history are situated and interwoven with Roberts’ survey, but the people he interviews make it come alive: chefs who hid away curing salumi in filing cabinets, and salumieri eschewing uniformity to experiment with microbial terroir.
While the nation’s appetite for charcuterie shows no signs of being sated, new producers face plenty of obstacles. “These products can play a role in strengthening local economies, but you’re not gonna see half a dozen producers in your area. That’s not possible at this point. And getting well-raised hogs eating the right things is tough. For new pruducers, their biggest challenge in emulating their teachers is often finding the right hogs.”
Whether you’re just beginning a love affair with charcuterie or you (like Roberts) go straight for the Chinese cured sausage when in San Francisco and Serbian smoked sausage at Cleveland’s Western Market, Salted and Cured is a treasure trove. It’s written with fanatical detail, but can easily be a simple reference for finding great charcuterie near your area. And you’ll come away knowing something about the culture and animals that influence these modern styles. But mostly, you’ll want to assemble a massive meat board featuring every producer Roberts visits.
Enter a drawing to win one of two free copies of Salted and Cured from Slow Food USA here.
Buy the book: https://www.chelseagreen.com/food-drink/salted-and-cured