Taking the cure

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It’s almost two weeks since we slaughtered the pigs, and only now is everything under control, thanks to the miracle that is the household freezer. The fresh cuts – chops, roasts, tenderloins – have been distributed to their recipients (we raised Doc and Tiny for friends, and Spot for us). The remaining bits and pieces are in our freezer, awaiting processing. We’ll make ham out of the hearts, tongue out of the tongues, and sausage out of the scraps. And, of course, liverwurst out of the livers. Pigs have very large livers, and we’re going to have enough wurst to see us through Armageddon.

What isn’t frozen is curing, thanks to the miracle that is sodium chloride.

And here we come to a central conundrum of our life here. Why is it that salt preserves food indefinitely, but corrodes everything else instantly? Our proximity to the sea (and our need to back trailers and trucks into it) has destroyed tools, kitchen implements, oystering accoutrement, and one truck frame.

You want to preserve metal? Keep it away from salt. But if you want to preserve pork, bring it on!

Neither Kevin nor I has ever cured meat before, and it seems a bit risky to make charcuterie guinea pigs out of the three animals we have so much invested in. Luckily, we have expert assistance.

Rook breaking down Spot (photo by Susan Tuveson)

Next time you find yourself in southern Maine, make sure you visit the Rosemont Market and Bakery. There, you’ll find baked goods, pizzas, and soups. Sandwiches, dips, and cheese. Pantry staples. Local produce. And Rook.

Rook is a butcher. Although it is a secret, and I’m not supposed to tell, he is also a CIA-trained chef. And he makes a coppa that may very well be the best cured meat I have ever tasted.

Rook isn’t his real name, but it’s one of those nicknames that may as well be. Rook’s girlfriend, Shannon, tells a story about a phone call he got when they’d been dating about three months. It was his mother, and Rook asked Shannon to answer. She did, and identified herself. “Oh, Shannon!” said Rook’s mother. “I’m so glad to meet you – Jarrod’s told me so much about you!”

Shannon took a mental inventory of her acquaintances.

“Who the hell’s Jarrod?”

Jarrod – Jarrod Spangler – is Rook. We were introduced to him by our friend Susan Tuveson, who has just opened an incubator kitchen (a licensed commercial kitchen where clients can rent space to start food businesses) called Acorn, in Kittery, Maine. The grout was barely dry when Susan hosted the inaugural event: a pig breakdown workshop. We brought the pig, she brought the butcher.

Watching a pro break down a pig convinced me that butchery should replace plumbing in the top slot of the do-not-DIY list. Rook carved perfect chops, beautiful roasts, and left no viable scrap behind.

We’re hoping, though, that we can do a little charcuterie – under careful supervision. Four of the six hams are destined for prosciutto, and Rook took two home with him. We took the other two. As Rook does each step in the curing process, he sends us detailed instructions, and we do the same. Once they’re cured and ready to dry, we’ll pick his up and take it from there. They’ll all hang together.

Prosciutto, Step One: Pounding with a rolling pin

Then we wait a year and a half to see how we did.

In the meantime, we get to try a couple other items. Rook took all six sides of pork belly to make our bacon, but we got all the pieces he cut off to make them nice and square and perfect. We rescued them from the scrap bucket and are trying a little bacon of our own. The jowls are curing, too, on their way to being guanciale.

(I should note that none of this would have happened without an assist from our friend Rick Bibeault. When the curing salt we ordered overnight from Amazon didn’t show, I put out a charcuterie APB to see if any Cape Cod friends happened to have some on hand. Sure enough! Not only did Rick have the salt, he also conveniently had his copy of Michael Ruhlman’s Charcuterie, which he apparently keeps in his car in case of emergency.)

Bacon odds and ends

Over the last few days, as we’ve cured the bellies, jowls, and hams, we’ve also eaten some of the pork. First, we had a couple of chops. Then I made a loose Italian sausage from some of the trim, and turned it into pasta sauce. When I roasted the bones for stock I appropriated some of the roasty bits for a stir-fry.

I am happy, and relieved, to report that the meat is very good. It is rich, flavorful, and porky. The cuts have an excellent fat-to-lean ratio. Our pork is everything we hoped it would be. We are nevertheless still coming to terms with the fact that we are eating Doc, Spot, and Tiny. We are not put off by the thought – and we were afraid we might be – but we acknowledge our pigs with every meal they’re a part of.

They were nice pigs, and Kevin and I were fond of them. We can’t walk down to the pen without remembering how they’d come to the gate and stick their noses through the fence whenever they heard us coming. Their living selves are still vivid to us and it’s odd, reconciling our affection for them with our appetite for them.

But all our meat was once an animal, and I can’t help believing that making the connection between the pig that ate acorns out of my hand and the pig that’s in the sausage on my pasta helps prevent those other animals, the ones I didn’t know, from being anonymous. From being just meat.

When we eat the prosciutto that’s now curing in the garage, it will be the first time we eat prosciutto from a pig we knew. We will be grateful for Spot, and her magnificent ham. But every slice of prosciutto comes from what was once a real, live pig, and I think it behooves all of us to remember that, and be grateful.

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Comments

  1. i am sure you are right, and i respect you for doing what i could not. i’m happier to have dave bring home an anonymous pig from the wild, one that i don’t see until it no longer has the parts we won’t eat. i was thinking about getting chickens, but don’t think i could eat those either. i’m one who cries every time we catch a fish, or heaven forbid, a lobster. i don’t enjoy them until they are on the plate, and then i toast mr. fish, or mr. lobster, who gave his life so that we could enjoy a wonderful meal. i’m a hypocrite. but at least i’m an honest one.
    btw, i missed your post on the slaughter and i’m such a wimp i won’t go back and look for it. :(

  2. “Behooves’…heh heh heh. Appropriate but still ironic. It’s interesting to read this right now- Steve is in the process of rendering leaf lard as I write.

    I’m interested to know that hearts can be turned into hams! Who knew? I thought they always came from the hind leg.

    I think that it’s really cool that raising your own meat builds in reverence for it.

    Good for you guys. I wish we had room for a pig because we so enjoy those personable, tasty creatures.

  3. I was going to hehe the “behooves” too!
    A year and a half… wow.
    I do like pork… a lot. Never tasted any that fresh tho. And the bacon “bits” look delish!!

  4. Jonathan in Korea says:

    I was hoping for more details about the actual day of. I know you were getting lots of commentary about the moral and ethical issues, but I hope that didn’t dissuade you from providing us with a more detailed look at the process of the slaughter. How did you end up dispatching the pigs? What were the mishaps that you alluded to in the previous post? What were the logistics involved? How did you end up moving the carcasses around? I’m sure you tried to utilize as much of the animals as possible, but how do you dispose of the bits that aren’t usable?

    I’ve watched videos of slaughterhouses (here’s a good example of, it seems, a good one that does it right: http://vimeo.com/22077752#at=0) but they have all kinds of equipment and a dedicated space for this kind of stuff — how did you manage that on a homestead?

    Sorry for the barrage of questions, and again, apologies if these details are forthcoming. As well, I’m sure that day was difficult for you both, and maybe you just want to get past it, but, I’m just really curious I guess.

  5. Ursula — That’s not hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is when you say, “Oh, I couldn’t kill that poor little animal. I love animals.” And then you go buy factory pork. I don’t think people are required to do their own raising and killing of animals; they just have to pay attention to how they are raised and killed. Taking a wild hog is a fine use of an overabundant species.

    Paula and Peg — Now how did I miss that joke?

    JinK — I will be writing, in detail, about the slaughter for the Washington Post. I’m not inclined to do it more than once, so I’ll post a link to the story when it runs. I promise to answer all your questions.

  6. Accidental Mick says:

    Tamar,

    You and Kevin should feel, justly so, proud of yourselves for carrying out what is basically a horrid task with care and considerate kindness. Well done.

    I’m with JinK. I’ve told you before how nosy I am but in this case I have a reason. My daughter and her partner (who both have well paid but extremely demanding jobs) intend to retire at 50 (a couple of years away for the partner) and intend to buy a small holding. Pigs are high on the agenda and they have already attended a beginners course on pig-keeping.

  7. You are fortunate to have found Rook. Another thing to do with the hearts that I like is thin slice them along with some thin sliced back fat, peppers and onions and then fry them up in the skillet. Delicious. The heart is so lean that it balances well the back fat. I leave the skin on the back fat when doing this. Get it nice and crispy. I like my onions blackened so I put them in early. Pigs are so delicious, every bit and every part.

  8. I am glad that I had some curing salt on hand. Oh and you never know when you are going to need a book on charcuterie, I like to be prepared!

  9. Congratulations on your pork project, I have been enviously following along thinking about doing this next year. Care to share your Liverwurst recipe?
    Thank you
    Jan

  10. Mick — I would highly recommend pig-keeping to any smallholder. As long as you have sturdy (or electric) fences and plenty of space, pigs are the best converters of feed to meat, and charming to boot. The whole killing thing isn’t much fun, of course, but it’s a necessary part of the process. I wish them luck!

    Walter — Every bit and every part. And that sounds delicious.

    Rick — It couldn’t have happened without you. My Amazon order came yesterday, so I can replenish your supply and return it to you. With my thanks.

    Jan — Let me know if you do it next year, so I can follow along in turn. And I will share the liverwurst recipe when I make it. I got it from a chef at a Providence restaurant — Matt Jennings, at Farmstead — and it’s delicious. I just have to execute it properly!

  11. I’m sad to say we’ve eaten all our home-cured and -raised guanciale (Hank’s recipe). It was delicious and replaced our local VT Smoke and Cure bacon when flavoring meals! I find myself craving the tiny bits of fat (from any cut), which melt-in-your mouth. We had one of the hams, neither cured nor smoked, for Thanksgiving and it was my first non-commercial pork holiday. I figured it would take us two years to consume one hog, but when it’s this delicious, I could be convinced to put in the effort to raise one every year.
    If the cut-up is anything like lamb, you can do it easily at home by making tenderloins instead of chops. I’ll be ready next time to tackle this side of it, at least. The killing and dressing will have to wait until I learn how to use a rifle. I can’t wait to hear how the prosciutto turns out!

    • Christine, I’m very glad to hear about other people’s pork successes. It seems like a big hairy deal, to raise and kill and butcher a pig, but it turns out lots of people do it. Our ancestors, just a few generations back, took it in stride.

      After watching Rook cut up our pigs, I’d never attempt it myself. Carving beautiful roasts out of the huge shoulders, and cutting perfect straight lines down the spine and ribcage are feats I won’t be accomplishing in this lifetime. But if you’re experienced with lamb, I think you have a much better shot.

      Speaking of better shots, I’d recommend having someone very good with firearms do the shooting. Not because it’s so difficult, but because I think confidence matters a lot.

      Keep me posted, please!

  12. My dad tells stories of going to his uncle’s farm in the fall/winter for the hog harvest. He said they would eat lard on bread and it was easily as good as butter on bread