Learning the Art of Charcuterie

deerisleI spent last weekend at a workshop on Charcuterie: the craft of salting, curing and smoking pork under a hunter’s full moon with authors, Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn in the precious, coastal Maine town of Dear Isle. My first time off in 7 months and they had one more opening. How lucky am I?

All 30 fellow students gathered for the workshop at 3 o’clock Friday afternoon under a sunny sky with a warm ocean breeze. Everyone milled around the beautifully restored post and beam barn meeting each other and patting the vocal goats in one of the stalls that begged for attention. Jumbo bales of hay dotted the corners of the barn as kittens slept in the afternoon sun, unconcerned that the barn was slowly filling with a crowd.

There was a long communal table set with plates, flatware and empty platters for later. A large commercial stove was set up outside the large barn door on the dirt driveway connected to a small propane tank that was jerry-rigged, all sitting next to the jumbo winter wood pile. Next to the makeshift butchering table laid out with Chef Polcyn’s knives was a large livestock watering trough filled with ice blocks covering Lucy, a very lovingly raised and killed pig-she was the other ‘rock star’ of the workshop.


This workshop was masterminded by Ingrid Bengis of Deer Isle who also started ICEC-An Island Culinary & Ecological Center. “This organization is committed to providing education and training to teach and help the youth of this area in the fields of culinary and hospitality arts with an emphasis on sustainability and increased public awareness of the island’s resources, culinary potential and ecological diversity”. Ingrid is what we call in Maine a “very sharp cookie”. She is an ocean forager for the best chefs in America.

Her company packs many boxes daily filled with the best of the best that Stonington, Maine water’s have to offer. Boxes of carefully packed seafood are picked up by FedEx trucks destined for delivery overnight to Le Bernardin, Per Se, The French laundry, to name a few of her clients. The best chefs of America have Ingrid on speed dial because her eye for quality is so superior and she tells them the whole life story about who caught what they are about to cook.

butcheringpigIngrid was nervously finishing up the last details for the workshop, a bit aloof to the gathering crowd. She was dressed in baggy, worn jeans and a sweater two sizes too large for her body. Her full curly head of hair was a natural gray, her hands reflect how hard she has worked all her life as she barks out orders to her assistants. Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn watch as the final details come together and they get the okay from Ingrid to start. Ingrid is in charge and it doesn’t take long for everyone to realize that.

The plan for this afternoon is to breakdown the two halves of a pig butchered that morning. One will be butchered into 5 primal pieces, European style and the other half cut into 8 primal cuts, American style. We will watch the process in detail and why the 5 primal cuts lend themselves to charcuterie making. All the pieces will be sorted: sausage trimmings, the leg trimmed up for prosciutto, the fat cut and separated for bacon and pancetta, the tenderloin and other choice pieces will be saved for dinner tonight; the rest of the meat will be salted for processing on Saturday at the borrowed public school kitchen.

Chef Polcyn is a master butcher and an artist. His cuts were exact. He wasted nothing. He talked about his restaurant in Michigan, Five Lakes Grill and how he breaks down a pig every 5 weeks. “I make this with that, I turn this into a pate, this goes into sausage that’s flavored with foraged mushrooms, I sell this as an app for 10 dollars and I get 20 servings - good profit, huh?” as he smiled broadly. He works skillfully with a lifetime of experience to know how to do this, this well. He has a restaurant of lucky customers that partake of his creativity and a barn full of students hanging on his every word, watching intensely. He is a true master of butchery.

As the sun was setting the wood fired grill was lit and the stove’s oven was filled with large hotel pans of ribs and tenderloins for dinner later. Questions were asked and answered, a large hen in the woods mushroom was sliced into thin steaks and sautéed in rendered pork fat. The aroma of pork filled the cool October night as the hunter’s moon rose just outside the open barn door. It was the most perfect of nights!

deerislefireDinner started with Ingrid’s donated oysters as everyone rolled up their sleeves and started shucking, a local restaurant sent an array of house made charcuterie-pates, rillettes, salamis, mortadella, and homemade cornichon. Ingrid unwrapped several local goat cheeses and fresh bread from the wood-fired oven of her friends, made for this event. The wine bottle corks were pulled on the makeshift bar - an old wide board balanced on two hay bails. The conversation grew louder and livelier as we ate. Everyone joined in to help make dinner - a barn full of cooks and chefs. The weekend was one long culinary celebration and it began as the full moon was rising over the pasture. We ate robustly by candlelight and moonlight. It was a very fine day.

Day 2 - Saturday morning I was at the elementary school kitchen at 8:45am for class to start at 9. Yup, me and the assistant in charge of making coffee were the only people there. “Am I early?” “Nope”, he replied. And that was that. So, I opened the 2 books by Ruhlman and Polcyn to review what we had worked on yesterday and waited as they all slowly filtered in looking rather groggy.

All the pork pieces were brought out of the cooler. They were separated by primal cut, arranged on large sheet pans and placed on a rack next to the demo counter. We were told to gather around, class was starting. Butchering started again as well as sorting-meat for curing and sausage making and another pile for fat. Fat had two piles-soft belly fat for a roasted pork belly, some for rendering and some for bacon and pancetta. We trimmed the legs making sure there were no pockets for bacteria to grow and salted them heavily. By noon we were making sausage - 4 kinds including my favorite, blood sausage with fresh blood and local apples. As they were each finished Michael cooked them off and we ate until they disappeared and then another kind of sausage appeared. Everyone was involved.

Pork belly trimmings were rending slowly on a back burner until the pot was half full of clear bubbling fat. It was strained and cooled and then whipped in a Kitchen Aid mixer until it was fluffy and white. This was pig butter. Who would have guessed? It looked like Crisco and it tasted like Crisco, not a very stellar experience. I prefer butter.

Guess what, it was time to eat again! We hadn’t stopped eating for the past 2 hours and now we were having lunch? Mon dieu! More roasted ribs and pork belly, chaperones - deep-fried pork skins as light as feather and a salad mix from Eliot Coleman’s Four Season farm - the ‘rock star’ of organic farming.

After lunch we were all cueing for caffeine so we could counter the serotonins being released into our bloodstreams. We all grabbed a stool, chair or milk crate because there was no way anyone could stand after our big lunch. We had a lot more salting and discussing to do.

Brian talked about different things to watch out for when processing charcuterie and to prove his point he took 2 legs of prosciutto out of a less than clean bucket that a student had brought in for his opinion. She had hung them for 1½ years in her dirt basement.

Both Brian and Michael rolled their eyes and started cleaning the various colored molds off the surface until the leg started to appear. The multitude of mold colors scared me, especially the golden yellow and the turquoise. But what I wasn’t prepared for was how wonderful her first attempt at making prosciutto could taste. It had the most wonderful, nutty flavor just like Iberico ham as well as a perfect rosy red color- just a different terrior.

It was delightful much to the surprise of our instructors. I guess with all their experience you never know; therefore, I go forth fearlessly into the world of Charcuterie!