All Hail The Pig, A Most Noble Beast!

I had a bit of an epiphany as I sat down to write this blog post. I am a dabbler, and if I want to really learn to cook well, I will have to come to terms with the need to pay attention to detail. The problem is that my mind never stays on task. I’m thinking about the next thing I’m going to try before I’m actually cooking what I am currently working on. Truly great food is prepared thoughtfully, with attention to detail. It doesn’t mean that you aren’t thinking ahead, but you must be able to focus on the task at hand.

The thing that got me thinking along these lines was the class in Charcuterie I took last year in Ottumwa, Iowa. Rather it was thinking about that class while preparing to write this post that provided insight. It’s funny how something can happen a while back, but we don’t see it as significant at the time. We were invited to bring some of our charcuterie attempts to share and to be critiqued by Chef Brian Polcyn (the instructor). I brought a lamb and chicken terrine, and two mustards that I had made. The mustards both got the comment that they were good “Pub mustards.” But the terrine had a lot of room for improvement. His questions were very pointed. “Did you use pork fat?” “At what temperature did you mix the terrine?” He asked other questions that slip my mind right now, but the whole experience left me deflated. Not because he criticized my product. That is what I was after! I was deflated because I realized that I didn’t know what I was doing, but there I was, doing it.

I have the tendency to “wing it.” In and of itself, that is not a bad thing, but it can be a hindrance in some cases. The terrine I brought for Chef Polcyn to critique was my first attempt at making a terrine. I did not use a recipe. I created the recipe. How do you create a recipe for a type of food product which you have never before made? I read a lot of recipes for terrines and pates, and then figured out a general ratio for meat to liver to fat. And then I lost focus, played with my food, and there you go! I had no idea that temperature was so blasted important to the process. Honestly, I simply had no idea about any of it!

Chef Polcyn breaking down the hogWhich brings me to the class itself. In the photo to the left is Chef Polcyn breaking down a half hog. He did this twice to show us both the European method and the USDA method. In the European method, the butcher breaks the hog down by knife only, whereas the USDA method employs a knife and a saw or bandsaw. The USDA method breaks the hog down into 5 primals plus scraps. The primals are: ham, loin, ribs/belly, butt and picnic ham. Sometimes the jowl is also included as a primal cut, but Chef Polcyn didn’t include it, and I see no reference to it in my notes. I can only surmise that, at least in most of the USA, the jowl isn’t very often used. A pity that.

In the photo on the right Chef Polcyn is breaking down a half hog. I didn’t get a good photo of tChef Polcyn breaking down the hoghe USDA primals that he laid out for us to see, and I must apologize for that. I did take a photo of the hog butchered in the European style. It seems to me that they do very similar primals, but then break the hog down further. Here are some of the cuts: Coppa, Lomo, Lonzo, Lardo, Prosciutto, Speck, Pancetta Spalla(cia), Guanciale. These are the main cuts. You could also add in Trotters and the Offal. Really, the offal should Hog heavenbe in there simply because the heart of Charcuterie lies in eliminating waste. In this photo the hog is not fully broken down, but you can see the lardo and coppa, and lomo. Before I forget, I should mention that the hog was a Mangalitsa hybrid. The meat had a bit more color than your average confinement hog, and the fat was more present, and a creamy color. I also learned that it is very important to bleed the hog very well before using it to make fermented meats because the blood sours quickly causing off flavors.

 That was all done on the first day. On the second day, we broke into teams of two and made a variety of meats, and meat products. I’m just going to post photos. The recipes are varied, and not really mine to give away, but they can all be found in two books, “Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing,” and “Salumi: The Craft of Italian Dry Curing.” Both are written by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn.

Some of the products we made were: Lardo, Spuma, Pate de Campagne, Porchetta di Testa, Mortadella, and English Pork Pie. I was on the Pork Pie team.

I am grateful that I got to work with Chef Polcyn. He’s an incredibly accomplished chef and truly a master of Charcuterie and Salumi. What I have learned is that I have to tame my wilder instincts, and learn the process before I try to exert my (IMHO) substantial imagination. A nice perk of having taken this class is that Chef Polcyn signed our books. In mine he wrote these words of wisdom: “Dave – add pork to the terrine and take its temp! Keep pushing forward for great food!” Words to live by, as well as the words of this post’s title, which he also gave me.IMG_1990


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