Charcuterie Seminar, On the Hoof?

A Spamtown resident wonders: Where are the best places in Minneapolis and St. Paul to learn a lot, and fast, about charcuterie?

“Dear Dara,” he wrote: “So my boss comes up to me yesterday and says ‘Hey, do you know anything about this?’ and hands me a magazine article with a single word highlighted: Charcuterie. I would say on the proverbial 1-10 scale on knowledge of charcuterie—where 1 is unable to pronounce it and 10 would be Mike Philips—I am maybe a 4. Hence my question and plea for help. I want to take my boss and a few other executive types on the 90-minute drive to Minneapolis/St. Paul and show them what charcuterie is. That way they can see and hopefully learn firsthand. I don’t think we are getting into that business, but we just want to understand this topic, as it is becoming more mainstream and works its way into more cocktail conversations. What establishments would you recommend?”

Oooh, this is a topic near and dear to my heart. I love charcuterie! (As does fellow Dara & Co. blogger Jason DeRusha, who wrote about it recently.) I think the growth of charcuterie interest and skill in the Twin Cities is perhaps the single most exciting thing to happen in the last decade. But before I say why, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page.

Part 1: A Charcuterie Primer

Charcuteriepronounced thusly—is simply the ancient European art of preserving meat, just as cheese is the ancient European art of preserving milk. It answers the question: How can I turn the animal I killed today into dinner all year? The answer: By using some combination of salt, dehydration, heat, smoke, spice, or sugar to prevent the meat’s decay, and to enhance flavor. Charcuterie has historically been the strong point of any and all areas with rich farmland, stable government, and a population that could afford to spend a little extra on good food. Of course charcuterie can be made with all sorts of animals other than pork; Italian braesola and Spanish cecina are dry, air-cured charcuterie cuts of beef, and sausages can be made from elk, deer, goose, duck, and, as far as I know, turtle or zebra. But because we’re talking Spamtown, we’ll mostly talk pork charcuterie. Here’s a smattering of countries with a smattering of their signature pork charcuterie…

Italy: Prosciutto (ham cured for at least a year not by cooking, but by suspending in the air), pepperoni, sopressata, salami, and a million variations (spiced dried sausages).

Spain: Iberico hams (a special breed of Spanish pig raised on acorns), dry cured sausages like chorizo (very different from the Mexican kind, more of the texture of something like pepperoni), sobrasada, and so on. Despana is a great American Spanish sausage specialist.

France: Jambon de Bayonne (prosciutto like ham from special breeds of pigs cured in a special part of France), and saucisson.

England: Suffolk ham (free ranging pigs, the hams characteristically black outside from a cure of molasses, porter, and brown sugar), Lincolnshire bacon and sausage (made with lots of sage).

Germany: Westphalian ham (pigs raised on acorns, smoked over birch and juniper), dried sausages like landjaeger and blockwurst.

Plus many more. Name a prosperous, not-too-hot place that relies on animals for food and you’ll typically find a charcuterie tradition; there’s charcuterie from Hungary (here’s a nice New York Hungarian charcuterie specialist), Switzerland, Ireland, Alsace, Serbia, Ireland, Latvia, Poland, Russia, China—and loads more.

Now, lots of food thinkers—myself included—think: Why shouldn’t Minnesota be the epicenter of American charcuterie? We’ve got the pigs, we’ve got the infrastructure, we’re fast enough, smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like us! Andrew Zimmern had a provocative blog-post a few weeks ago naming the Green Ox this year’s game-changer—the Green Ox, of course, being the soon-to-launch charcuterie project of Mike Phillips, former chef at the Craftsman, and Kieran Foillard, of the many Irish pubs. Iowa’s La Quercia has proved that you can make European-caliber prosciutto in the land of the red, white, and blue. (Well, I guess France and England are also the land of the red, white, and blue, but you know what I mean. In the land of the cheeseburger pizza.) Why not? Well, maybe because: Making charcuterie is difficult. It’s considered the apex of the butchering arts. To do it well you must master preservation in all its forms and with all its pitfalls; you must know mold, yeast, fermentation, and all sorts of microscopic processes and critters, and how to harness them for the greater good. Which is exactly what cheesemakers do, but cheesemakers have a much greater infrastructure available to them (as far as I know there’s no meat equivalent of the Center for Dairy Research at the University of Wisconsin, Madison). And the raw materials are cheaper too! That said, there are all sorts of local charcuterie makers and fans who have been working hard to prove that Minnesota-made charcuterie is some of the best in the country. And thus we have part two of our story.

Part 2: A One-Day Charcuterie Tour of the Twin Cities

1) Noon: Travail
You’ll start your day at Travail, the Robbinsdale gastropub; the young chefs there make all sorts of their own charcuterie. I’ve been particularly thrilled by their sous vide “pork tartare,” which sounds raw but isn’t. It’s really just a tender cut of pork dressed in a complex aioli with herbs, but it really is an eye-opener in terms of what you don’t know about pork. (Call ahead—the Travail menu changes constantly, so charcuterie may or may not be on deck on a given day.) You can learn more about Travail in my October review, “Labor of Love.”

2) 2:30 p.m.: Clancey’s
Clancey’s, the butcher shop in south Minneapolis, is essentially ground zero for Minnesota charcuterie, as they were the first of the new generation of butcher shops to get in whole animals and think about them from a chef’s point of view. Any number of local line cooks and restaurant chefs have worked at Clancey’s for the chance to learn about whole animal butchery, and on any given day you may find their case stocked with country style paté, layered pork terrines, pork rillettes, oxtail terrine, smoked foie gras terrine, Tasso ham, pancetta, landjaeger, blood sausage, and their astonishing mortadella. Clancey’s fans, also please note: Greg Wintergreen, one-time chef at the Nicollet Island Inn and the opening chef at Clancey’s, is back after his long hiatus for foot surgery. Owner Kirsten Tombers tells me they are a happy reunited kitchen, and to celebrate, expect the new batch of blood sausage sometime next week.

3) 4 p.m.: Haute Dish
Haute Dish, Landon Schoenfeld’s new restaurant, has the element-for-element best charcuterie plate in town in this critic’s opinion. Get to the restaurant just as they open and order the Char Cuts platter; if you’re lucky they’ll have their head cheese, their house-made mortadella, and half a dozen other options. If it’s still on the menu, get Schoenfeld’s “Ham in a Can.” He really does make his own ham dish and can it in a metal can, just like Spam at Hormel! Discuss what it would take to make Schoenfeld’s dish at Hormel’s level of production. Then, send me the transcript. I’m dying to know.

4) 6 p.m.: Heartland
Now, drive across town to Heartland in St. Paul. Start out in Lenny Russo’s new market attached to Heartland. Try his house-smoked pastrami, wild-boar headcheese, smoked sausages, and whatever else is on offer in the glass cases. Be sure to ask about the hams they’ve been putting up. Are they ready now? If not, they’ll likely take you on a tour of the basement where you’ll be able to see them aging behind glass. If you’re feeling shy, just go down the stairs like you’re heading to the bathrooms and start looking around. You’ll see them. Also, the salamis. After you’ve bought a bag of charcuterie to go, head into the wine bar, request the wine bar menu and the restaurant menu, and get one of everything that’s charcuterie. You may be there for a while! Smoked Mangalitsa pork sausage, lamb terrine, goat rillettes, beef braesola, duck prosciutto—that’s good stuff.

Now jump into your party bus and it’s a skip-hop-and-jump to 52 or I-35E for the journey back to Austin. Does it make you want to start a charcuterie company? And Twin Cities readers: What charcuterie spots would you add? Who did I leave out?