Charcuterie: A French term describing the art of and/or someone that cures meats. The Italians call it ‘Salumi’ and many countries from Asia to Africa, have their own terms, recipes and techniques for making fresh meat last. It started with hunters, farmers and sailors. They would have a harvest and to prevent their meat from spoiling, they would salt and hang cuts. Today, we have refrigeration and transport is fast and efficient. We really don’t have to cure meats anymore. But we do. Why? Well, it’s simple. The traditional curing process makes meat taste bloody delicious. I can sum it up in one word: Bacon.
I have been interested in learning about charcuterie for many years. During my twenty years of working as a professional chef, other than pickling a few things and messing with a smoker on a few occasions, I have left the curing to those that know best and rather satisfied my cravings by devouring the tasty wares of my more knowledgeable peers. Often, that devouring could better be termed gluttony. You see, this stuff is freakishly addictive. That extra rasher of crispy cooked, streaky bacon, always found shelter in my mouth. The offer to partake in these wares has never had to be made twice. Hell, it has never even had to be made.
So I have admitted my weakness for bacon, but it’s not only bacon. A good salami, laced with garlic, fennel and stinking of red wine and more garlic, well, yum yum yum. Don’t even get me started on prosciutto and pancetta. Both equally delicious.
Now as I age, I have learned to lean towards the finer things in life. To never drink from the cup of mediocrity. To choose what goes into my mouth. I would much rather have less of the best than loads of the rest. I want to know that, if I am eating a bunch of grapes, that they were grown without the soil receiving a daily drenching of chemicals. The same goes for meat. Not only do I want to eat only meats that come from good sustainable sources, but mostly, I only want to eat things that taste as good as they can. With all this in mind, I needed to learn more about the art of curing meat.
I am lucky enough to live in Cape Town, where one of the finest traditional charcuterie producers in South Africa is based. The person and company in question, that bears his name, is Richard Bosman. Or to be totally correct, Richard Bosman Quality Cured Meats.
To my delight, a google search on Richard told me that he runs meat curing workshops. I enthusiastically sent him an email in which I lamented about my cabin fever and boredom during this 2020 lock down period and that I would love to learn about charcuterie. I mentioned my training and experience as a professional chef and that I had dabbled in sausage and biltong making. But most importantly, I have something of an obsession with Italy and anything Italian. My vision is to relocate to a small village and don my chef’s whites to sell my own cured meat wares at the village market. In essence, I babbled on about myself and my longstanding desire to learn about curing meats. Oh yes, I also threw a little spanner in the works by revealing that I am 100 percent blind.
The challenge I presented to Richard was: How would he feel about teaching some of his skills to a blind guy? I did not even read-through my email draft before hitting send.
Early the next day, Richard replied positively – it seemed that my enthusiasm had not scared him off… We bounced a couple of emails back and forth before he suggested a meeting. A few days later, I found myself masked up at a factory that smelled of bacon and herbs.
Now let me quickly stop here and explain how challenging it is for me, as a blind guy, to wear a mask and live during a pandemic as we presently are. With the Corona virus and its Covid19 disease causing havoc, the wearing of face masks and regular sanitizing of hands and observing social distancing is, of course, mandatory. Sight accounts for at least 75 percent of your used senses. When you no longer have sight, you learn to focus on your other senses. Some may think that a blind person’s other senses are heightened and this is sort of true. A better way of explaining it is, I don’t have to waste any of my RAM on sight, so a lot can be focused on the other senses. Sound, smell, taste and touch. My four remaining senses. The issue is, with a mask on, sniffing things is hard, sounds of voices are somewhat muffled and tasting is impossible, unless you either remove the mask, or the food passes through by means of osmosis, and that is not going to happen. Then there is touch. Well, remember, social distancing makes this another no go zone. In essence, I am one sense down and the other four are at half speed. Ah, the joys of having a disability. Now, back to the bacon.
I explained all this to Richard when we met. If it concerned him, he did a great job of hiding that concern. He just told me to be there early the following day, to bring an apron and be ready to butcher a half a pig. I was thrilled.
At our first lesson, Richard led me into his factory. We washed our hands and went over to a stainless steel table. The room smelt sweet and savory with the scent of curing meats. My mouth was watering a bit if I am honest. At the table, I felt out the split carcass of the pig. Richard patiently talked me through what I was feeling. Interestingly, a pig’s anatomy is quite different from that of a sheep or cow. The only animals I had done any butchering on before. It did not take long and I was cutting away. Richard talked me through each cut, all the time explaining the process and guiding me carefully around the animal. Before long, we had broken down the pig and netted up a couple of hams plus diced up lots of meat for the mincer. We had the belly and tenderloin ready for curing. These would make both back and streaky bacon, while the diced chunks would end up in sausage and salami. I was in my element. The boning knife was damn sharp. Yes, I nicked myself a little during the job. Luckily it was just a small cut and right at the end of the butchering and the end of my thumb. As a chef, I abide by the legend that, “You only master a knife once the blade has tasted your blood.”
With my little wound washed and inside a rubber glove, we moved to the spicing area. Richard allowed me to choose my preferred spices for the cuts of bacon. The air filled with strong smells as I rubbed the butchered pig pieces with garlic, black pepper, rosemary, chilli and fennel seed. We sealed the pieces in bags and that was that for day one. I left the factory carrying a huge bag with just over 5kgs of whole bacons. As I write this, these are curing in my drying chamber and will be sliced and devoured in the next few days. Richard also sent me home with a pile of samples. Salamis, his own bacon, a bag of crackling and what later that day would become the best pork pie I have ever eaten and I promise, I have tried many.
At my next lesson, we minced chunks of pork. I learned about fat to meat ratios and we made some salami and Italian style pork sausages. Again, Richard let me choose the flavourings. For the salamis, I went for something Calabrian. Fennel, red wine, chilli and loads of garlic. The sausage meat was infused with diced up pieces of preserved lime skins and thyme. This has since become one of my favorite combinations.
Maybe it was the fact that Richard is a kind and patient man, but the process of going through my lockdown charcuterie lessons was an absolute pleasure. Richard Bosman is both a gentleman and a gentle man. He grabbed the challenge of teaching some of his long learned skills to a blind man, by the horns. Well, pigs don’t have horns, but if they did, he would have.
I have learned the basics and am playing with different combinations and seasonings. In the next year or two, I hope to move to that little rural village and I will most certainly be doing some charcuterie in between writing. Whether it is to sell at the market or just for my own enjoyment, there will be no more bad watery supermarket bacon in my life.
Richard is lovingly known as the boss of bacon, but I can go further and say that he is the master of the meat. He has inspired my desire to continue experimenting and aspire to be as good a charcuterie as he is one day. Now, enough typing. I need to go and check on my bacon. Chefs say that a watched pot never boils. I hope this does not apply to bacon curing, or mine will never be ready to slice.
If you are interested in learning about the art of charcuterie, you can contact Richard Bosman Quality Cured Meats through his website and social media
Richard runs courses all over South Africa for large or private groups, at his own venues or at private homes.
His meats are ethically sourced and of the highest quality produced from organic, pasture raised pork. His website has an online offering and his produce is available from many Spar stores and all good delis.
Footnote: Over the weekend, I finally got to slice the first belly. This proved to be ten times the challenge I expected, but even though I ended up with a pile of offcuts, I have a nice pile of streaky bacon too. The offcuts won’t go to waste though. They will be great in pasta Carbonara or Arrabbiata and some pieces may even make an appearance in my next Frittata. That is, if they last that long and don’t just end up in my swelling stomach. I know the salami is definitely not going to be shared…