Curing meat stirs something primal within me: It is an ancient alchemy, a way to turn scorned cuts of meat into something sublime, a way to connect with a past we’ve all but lost. These are not original ideas. Any of you who make your own sausages, salami or cured meats know this, as does anyone who spends much time around salami-makers. As true as they are, such thoughts are part of the canon of the charcutier.
I’m not so different from my fellow scholars of salt and meat, but reasons baser than the mystical keep me buying hog casings and back fat.
I like the permanence of cured meat. I like that I can (and have) served a tangy wild boar fennel salami that is 18 months old — and even better than it was when it was a newborn. I like that I can vacuum-seal a piece of cured meat and come back to it later and taste it as it was, or that I can let it hang, on and on, until it becomes something entirely different. And should my power fail and my freezer die, my cured meat will live on.
I also admit I enjoy the “wow” factor when I serve my handmade charcuterie to others, especially strangers. That “you MADE this?” look never gets old. Not everyone knows how to do this stuff, although it is not difficult if you want to learn. (I have several recipes posted in the Wild Game Recipes section if you are interested.) Curing wild game meats adds another layer. Hunting something, killing it, butchering it, and then making a cured goose breast or a wild duck soppressata or a venison sausage is outside the realm of even many accomplished cooks. I like that I can do this.
I make all my game sausages entirely of the meat of whatever it is, plus pork fat (Life is empty without pork fat). Hunters, should you take your game to a butcher for processing, he will likely mix it with up to 40 percent pork (often factory-farmed pork), because he thinks that you will not like the pure stuff. He’s probably right for most hunters, but remember that fat governs any meat’s flavor, so even my all-duck or all-wild boar sausages aren’t as strong as you may think. In fact, I add back a fair bit of skin and natural fat to bump up the “ducky” flavor in my sausages.
I am awaiting my wild duck soppressata. It is a spicy dried salami that hangs at the back of my curing fridge these days; I think it may be ready by the end of this month, but we’ll see. Like all wild duck charcuterie, it will be a dramatic meat: deep burgundy — like a petite sirah — with snowy white pork fat, or in the case of a prosciutto, natural fat the color of a cut cornfield.
Not everything I do is from wild meat. I am curing guanciale, as well as the livers, of that Mangalitsa hog I acquired some months ago. They are still curing; Incanto chef Chris Cosentino cures his pork liver for a year.
I also made a fennel salami from a wild sheep Holly shot last year, an attempt to recreate a hint of an excellent elk finocchiona I made in 2006.
When I think about that it changes my perspective on food: “Ah, the 2006 was an excellent year for elk charcuterie — the humidity was right, the fat sweet, the fennel strong.” Sound like wine? Curing meat puts me in that same mindset. I think in months and years instead of minutes or hours.
Time slows and I grow zen-like when minding the cure. “I should check on the fridge today,” I think. Three days pass. When I open the fridge, the humidity may be 70 percent, it may be 60 percent. Temperature? A constant 55 degrees. “Oh, I see a little mold has arrived.” I rub it off with a cloth soaked in red wine vinegar. It does not return. Weeks pass. I grasp the goose breast or salami and press gently: still too soft. Give it another week. Or two.
Know that fat cures slower than muscle. A lean antelope bresaola I made in 2007 cured within two weeks. As it continued to age, it hardened into a slab that required a steady hand and a stout knife to cut slices thin enough to where I could see through them. Served that way, the antelope was superbly dense yet light on the tongue, salty but not overwhelmingly so, meaty with a certain I-don’t-know-what that marked it as wild game.
But it’s gone now. Forever. I will never have nor will anyone eat this same antelope bresaola again, even if I follow my recipe precisely. No other antelope will taste exactly like this one (a beautiful, wide-horned 14 1/2-inch Wyoming buck), and the curing conditions never will be exactly the same again. Those ruby slices are a memory.
As it should be. Like wine, cured meats develop a personality — partly as a result of your influence, partly as a result of the animals’. Your animals have eaten different things, and the pork fat you obtain will have similar issues of pedigree. All may have been butchered differently. In the kitchen, your hand at seasonings may be a touch different, and the vagaries of temperature and time and humidity all take a star turn in the making of great charcuterie.
My 2008-09 vintage is in mid-stream; I plan to make several more batches before the weather warms in April. This year is marked by a surfeit of ducks and geese, and no venison — something I intend to fix next season. But that too is part of charcuterie’s beauty: Every year will be different. Like life.