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?
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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!
- 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!
- 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.
- 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!