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.
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.
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.)
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.