Tag Archives: farm

Pork thighs, white mold and the mysteries of the bladder

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Pork thighs, white mold and the mysteries of the bladder

So it’s time to stop fretting over the ugly situation in the wider world, and start this year off right where I’m happiest – on the farm, in the kitchen.

I butchered my second pig back in November, about 10 days before Thanksgiving.  She was a lovely friendly American Guinea Hog who was quite obese at the time of her death. As a matter of fact, when I saw how much fat was in her body, I was pretty amazed she hadn’t just dropped dead of a heart attack on her way out to the meadow to do her tractoring job for me. Instead, she was killed quickly and mercifully by another local farmwoman who is an expert. Yes, I took out a hit on my pig.

Hambone (the previous pig was named Porkchop)  is now in the freezer in various pieces, and is slowly being turned into processed goodies like maple cured apple smoked bacon, guanciale, pancetta, coppa, lardo, tasso ham, and so forth.  I’ve actually never liked American style cured pork products, the bright pink salty stuff with the wierd sticky mouth feel.  But the arts of charcuterie and salumi are right up my alley.  They require study and thought, diligence in execution, and patience.  They take ordinary pork (well, darn good home raised happy pork) and turn it into the height of the food preserver’s art.  Done right, heaven.  Done poorly, anywhere from awful to deadly.  Nothing is fun without some risk.

I had always thought the piece de resistance of meat processing was prosciutto.  Well, on doing some reading, turns out there is one product even more revered by foodies in the know.  Culatello.  The details of how this is made in its traditional home in Italy are shrouded in mystery, but the general idea is that this is a boneless half a ham (the back half of the leg).  It’s three big muscles in one piece. The culatello is salt cured (sometimes with black pepper), rinsed in red wine (and sometimes garlic) and then  packed tightly into the pig’s bladder.  It’s tied up in a manner that creates a tight string bag around the bundle, and then hung in a cool dark humid place (in Italy, caves and basements are favored) for months to years.  It develops a coating of penicillium mold, which in part protects it from other less helpful microflora, and in part interacts with the meat in mysterious ways which change its flavor and texture.  Over time, it gets very ugly with mold and dust and loses about half its weight through drying.   The string bag gets loose, adding to the charming ugliness.  When finally opened up, it is allegedly the finest meat product one can eat.  Allegedly because I’ve never had it.  But I’m going to, in a few months.

I decided to make my first attempt a Fiocco, rather than a culatello. It’s the same preparation, but it’s the front half of the leg. It’s smaller and supposedly not quite as great meat. But because it’s smaller, it takes only 4-6 months to cure rather than 10+ months.  So I thought I’d start with fiocco. In part because I’ll get to evaluate this new venture sooner. In part because it’s smaller so if I wreck it I’ve still got the culatello cut, which could always just be smoked as a regular ham.  And most importantly, because my cool room is not cool in the summer, so this needs to be done by no later than midMay when the east side of the house starts warming up.

Curing conditions are important to all these pork projects.  The guanciale, the pancetta, the salami, all need to be hung in the cool damp darkness. Most people who do this modify such things as old refrigerators or humidors to provide the right conditions.  I’m lucky – I have a room in my house that does beautifully from about October to May.  It stays a steady 50-58 degrees F and is easily humidified.  Ambient humidity here where I live is about 20-25% RH; with an old fashioned cool mist vaporizer running 3 hours on and 1 hour off I get it up to about 50-55%.  For these meats, it’s supposedly best to go up to 60-70%, but so far, for the guanciale and pancetta, the current system has been fine, no case hardening problems.  For the fiocco and salami, new projects this winter, I will probably go to a thrift store later this week and blow $15 on an ultrasonic humidifier, which I think will raise the RH to where I want it without soaking the carpet (the reason the vaporizer is not running around the clock).

One reason to love living alone is that there is no one to object to the drying rack covered with hunks of meat in the middle of the former guest bedroom!

So, the fiocco…..I started with the Salumi cookbook by Ruhlman and Polcyn. Their Charcuterie book was my bible for last year’s pig processing.  This year, Salumi is the word. But there is so much variation in how this stuff is done, and like most budding meat curers, I was fretting over the right way to tie the thing, and how on earth would I ever fit a hunk of leg in the bladder?  So I did  a lot of surfing to find more info. Watched youtube videos on the microbiology as well as the tying technique, read the few blogs that focus on this craft.  And realized that there’s not that much help out there, so….hence this blog entry.  If you want to try this, I hope my learning will benefit you.

So, there seem to be three burning questions on this: 1 – where to get the premium pig leg for the project? 2 – where to get a pig’s bladder?  And 3 – how to tie the string to create the classic pear shape?

My answers:

1- Grow your own.  Hambone was not one of the breeds that earn the Italian product protected name status. But she was happy and fat and ate only healthy food including all my garden processing scraps, leftovers, outdated milk from the local dairy, outdated bread from the dumpster behind the organic bakery…you get the idea.  So much good food goes to waste in our world, but not at my place when there’s a pig to be fed!  My pig was apparently smaller than the Italian pigs (her culatello weights about 5 1/2 lbs, the fiocco about 3 1/2, which is maybe half or a third the size others mention in their recipes).

2 – Kill your own.  Hambone’s bladder was saved because we killed and butchered her right here in the back yard, so I had the chance to keep lots of useful stuff that a butcher would have discarded as offal, including the bladder.  I rinsed it, closed off the urethra with a hog clip, inflated it (using a spray air can usually used to clean my keyboard) and hung it in the curing room until thoroughly dry. At which time it really did not look like it would be big enough for anything like a ham (think of trying to fit your left buttock into your bladder….you get the idea).

3. Between the shape of the bladder and the shape of the muscles, it’s going to be a pear shape. No mystery, and no special technique needed.

So, here’s the process I used:

  1. Trim the meat square and tie it into shape (the fiocco has a shallow slot where the bone was, the culatello is cut flat along the bone and has none).   At this point my fiocco weighed 3.5 lbs.

    Trimmed and tied, ready for the salt cure

    Trimmed and tied, ready for the salt cure

  2. Dry cure it by rolling it in kosher salt until all surfaces were coated well.  I do this in a ziplock bag, then dump out the extra salt, seal the bag and put it in the fridge.  It’s supposed to take about 1 day per 2 lbs, so I left it in the cure for 2 days.  Turn it and gently rub the cure liquid around on the meat every day or so.

    Ready for the refrigerator

    Ready for the refrigerator

  3. Take it out, rinse it with red wine to remove the excess salt. At this point, it had lost some weight (now at 3.1 lbs) and the string had loosened.  So I removed the string and took the opportunity to massage the meat well with fresh cut garlic, cracked black pepper, and more red wine. Because, hey, it’s an Italian thing, so more red wine and garlic must be the way to go!  And pepper is always a good idea for cured pork. I removed all the garlic, since fresh garlic can harbor C. Botulinum, and I thought that removing the plant fiber part and just leaving the oils on the meat would be safer.
  4. I then retied it, tighter, giving a good bit of attention to closing the slot well  (this was a simple tie like a roast, read on for the fancy part). The opening can cause problems in the curing – best case, a hard dry area where the curing is uneven, worst case, a safe harbor for C. Botulinum.  I choose not to use nitrates in most of my meat products because I don’t like the weird pink color and texture it gives to the meat, so I’m very careful about hygiene.  (N.B., for the salami I will use it, no way to avoid the risk in ground meat products cured at room temp; for whole muscles the risk is much lower).

    Rinsed, massaged, and re-tied

    Rinsed, massaged, and re-tied

  5. I soaked the bladder in warm water for about 20-30 mins, and the most amazing changes happened!  It changed color and became soft, elastic, and much much bigger!  I mean even bigger than it was when I took it out of the pig, and it was big then because the flushing out of her private areas had filled it with water from the hose.  No worries about how to fit the meat in the bladder.  I cut a slit in the bladder and put the tied meat right into it. The larger culatello would have easily fit; for this fiocco I wound up cutting out about two inches of “material” along the seam.
    Dried pig bladder

    Dried pig bladder

    Meat into the bladder, plenty of room

    Meat into the bladder, plenty of room

  6. Now for the fancy stitching and tying. I didn’t have a butcher’s needle, don’t even know what that is…but I had some sailmakers’ needles, so I picked one with an eye big enough for the twine, and sewed the meat tightly into the bladder.  No problem!
    close up on bladder stitching

    close up on bladder stitching

    nice and tight, with bladder pieces removed for better fit

    nice and tight, with bladder pieces removed for better fit

  7. Next, the butcher’s twine net bag.  Thank goodness for youtube and my fellow bloggers. This was a bit tedious, but not very difficult to do. Got it nice and evenly tight, no air pockets, and it was so pretty!
    First steps in tying the netting

    First steps in tying the netting

    All done and ready to hang!

    All done and ready to hang!

    Tied in the loop tie used for hanging sausages, with an extra pass through the top of the netting

    Tied in the loop tie used for hanging sausages, with an extra pass through the top of the netting

  8. Now here’s where I had to wing it. Some sources refer to giving it some time to ferment before putting it in the cave. Some talk about piercing the bladder all over for drying, some not. Some inoculate with penicillium to prevent bad mold invasions, and some don’t (in Italy, they don’t have to because they have been using the same cellars and caves for centuries, so it already lives there).  I decided to hang it as it was for one day to dry the surface, since the bladder was quite moist, and then decide whether to inoculate it.  So into the curing room it went, after being weighed and labeled.
  9. One day later….checked on it this morning after about 20 hours hanging. The surface was nice and smoothly slightly moist/tacky, not wet anymore.  I could feel some moisture under the bladder, so I took a corn holder and poked a zillion holes all over the thing. And when I was doing that, I discovered…is it?…could it be?…..WHITE MOLD!!!  I was thrilled. No inoculation needed.  Who needs a cave in Italy when you have a spare bedroom in New Mexico?

Now, it’s time for the long wait.  At this weight of meat and given the low humidity, I’m thinking this might take 3 or 4 months to be ready for eating.  So I’ll let you know around April how it came out!

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The harvest continues

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This year, I decided not to plant a winter garden.  There are plenty of foods that would do well here overwintering in the greenhouse, or in the ground with some minimal help to get through the coldest weather.  By the time I should have been planting for fall and winter, in August and September, I was working two full time jobs at the same time, and had a huge summer harvest to process, and was working on building the pig tractor…..anyway, I just decided enough was enough.

So I’m pretty amazed, and pleased, that I still have a few last bits of fresh food to eat, such as the last few plum tomatoes that I am eating as they slowly ripen on my kitchen counter.  And there is still some in the ground: I need to pull carrots and make more soup to can for the winter.  I have chicken carcasses left from the killing day at Sunflower River, an intentional community and organic farm just down the road a piece.  So I need to make more chicken stock and soup (and will throw in some of those last carrots….mmmm.) And there are the African blowfish melons from my partner’s garden, which may or may not be ripe, and may or may not be particularly tasty….I consider them with delight and trepidation, and they glare back menacingly.

But clearly the largest ongoing harvest project is the pig.  Hambone weighed somewhat over 300 lbs when she went to meet the Swine Goddess at Samhain.  She was a delightful sweet creature who loved to have her back scratched and did a fine job turning up new garden beds for me out in the meadow where it’s impossible to dig with a shovel.  I have an intimate energetic connection with all the food I produce; I choose to do all my own slaughtering and butchering here at home in order to honor and maintain that complete connectedness (and have control over the hygiene of my meat – no one is getting sick from my food!)  Hambone was happy here, well fed and safe and sheltered, and I cannot see ever sending her, or any of her successors, to a slaughterhouse, making death day stressful and scary for the pigs and for me.  As a practical matter of maximizing my harvest, doing my own butchering ensures that I am able to glean all the goodies that would otherwise be lost to me.  Old time treasures like the bladder I preserve for use as a sausage casing to honor the ancestors’ ways.  Some “inedibles” like the pancreas go into sausage, where no one notices them and they taste fine.  Separating the leaf lard from the back fat and the trim fat allows me to create an old time treasure that can only be found on a farm.  Fat concentrates toxins and stress hormones. My toxin free, happy pigs produce leaf lard that is a prized commodity for pastry making.  Using as much of the pig as possible is another way I honor her gentle spirit and her sacrifice of her short life for my long one.

But….all this meat processing takes time, and work.  Four days of hard labor starting with slaughter day. Then two weeks of steady work butchering and starting the curing process and rendering the lard that results. Later, some parts of the project, like sausage making, just take setting aside a day and getting a few helper/apprentices lined up.  Some of it, like making bacon, is simple to do, but cannot be rushed. Bacon and related products must cure for as long as they need, and when they are ready they needs to be dried and/or smoked, and then packaged for storage, and you have to do those things when the meat is ready. So it requires tending and attention, if not daily work.

Then there’s the charcuterie, including my new attempts with this pig at salumi, the Italian dried and cured meats, such as pancetta, coppa, and so forth. Yum! Again, these don’t take any particular length of time, and they need small daily attentions (such as filling the humidifier I use in my drying room! Welcome to New Mexico).

Lastly, there’s the lard.  This was a rather rotund pig, an American Guinea Hog, which is a breed known for being “lard pigs”.  So beside rendering lard, and having plenty of fat for sausage-making and dry-curing (as “lardo”, an Italian delicacy which is pure fat heaven), it looks like I’ll be making soap sometime this winter.  I understand pig fat makes very rich moisturizing soap. Given the rough palmed muscle men who helped with the  slaughter and raved about how smooth and soft their skin was afterwards, I bet it’s true.

All the above will easily last me until time to start the garden babies in the greenhouse in early February. And until the next pigs move in.  So at last, I’m doing farm work year round, and eating fresh, safe, nutritious food through the winter.  And working my ass off most days.

Hello world!

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So….here I am, blogging.

I have been told by so many people over the years that I write well, that I have an interesting life,  that they would like to read what I write about my life and my reflections on the world around me.  They probably say these things because I’m weird, and thus intriguing. I have found myself writing  short essays about why I live as I live, or about my daily activities and choices and the ideas they inspire, or just funny anecdotes about my animals and gardens.  This blog is a first step toward organizing some of that kind of material and making it available to….whoever might be interested!

I am a witch. I am a priestess of the goddess Hekate, and a coven leader, and a teacher and mentor to some of my fellow witches.  My spiritual path defines me, and is central to the way I live: my choices, my attitudes, my judgements, all spring from my interpretation of what it is like to live a life in which every choice is a spiritual one to some degree.

There are many other things that I am besides a witch, of course. I’m middle aged; I’m bisexual; I’m an educator; I’m a nurse; I’m a white blonde who lives in a Mexican neighborhood.  I’m Leo with Capricorn rising. I’m a superb cook, and a fair hand with tools.  I am a horsewoman, and an animal lover.  I love to sing,  to laugh, and to think.

I have a small property, about a half acre, in the South Valley of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Over the three and a half years that I’ve been here, I’ve been turning it into a very small farm.  The process of doing this, and the reasons for it, have become an ongoing exploration.  My relationship to life, and to death, and to my community, and to my body, and to work and money, are all being explored in this laboratory of mine. Along with my relationships to food, and to how-to books, and to vermin and pests, and to tools, and to county regulations, and to thrift stores, and to public utilities. And to chickens.  It’s all constantly up for re-evaluation, all in motion, all evolving.  I am a work in progress. I invite you to witness my changes, and enjoy them with me.