Remember that old joke about the three legged pig? there are thousands of variations here, here and … here.
I can’t help but think of this peg-legged guy whenever I hear conversations about making charcuterie. Why eat a pig this good all at once? More like why eat a pig that’s not good at all? or not ready for the table.
Students come to my program in Southwest France to learn, refine, hone and expand their traditional butchery & charcuterie skills. The dense and chewy intensive four weeks of discovery has many different layers. Some of it is about the ‘foreignness’ of being in France- different language, different food, rhythms, continuity of the food arts, philosophies, etc. Southwest France is charmingly beautiful, old world rural landscapes and stone villages; a renaissance chateau here, a medieval fort there. Some of it is how the more things change, the more they stay the same. But most people (ok, almost all) fall in love with the friendly people they meet- the Chapolard family in particular. We work with them on the family farm as they turn their home grown pigs, 8 to 10 a week, into amazingly delicious charcuterie. When our students/visitors/guests/friends leave to go home, I hope they also take this one extra souvenir with them. That three legged pig that was too good to eat… too soon.
Beyond the techniques, technical curing rooms, family recipes, the amount of salt and pepper (14 grams salt + 2 grams peppers per kilo), no nitrates, a little smoke, a lot of black pepper, the old stone cheminées, the folklore, the romance (on a pig farm? mais oui!), the long delicious lunches, and the frenchness of it all, there is one basic thing that I will never stop reminding them about- that pig. That Big French Pig.
The French call them porcs lourds or heavyweights. They weigh between 180-200 kilos (400 lbs +). They are 10-15 months old. They are adult pigs. The meat from these XL pigs is deep red, well-structured and flavorful. Some are rare breeds like the Black Gascon, the Basque Kintoa, or the standard farmer’s breed- Large white, Duroc and Pietrain. They eat well-balanced diets of wheat, barley, oats, corn and feverole. Some are pastured, some are forested and some are reared indoors. There are as many different details here as farmers just like in the US, UK or Australia. However there is ONE BIG difference.
Most pigs destined for good charcuterie-traditional, artisan, delicious charcuterie- are raised until they are a minimum of 10-11 months sometime as long as 15 months. These mature pigs produce a meat quite unlike their youngster cousins that are the standard ‘other white meat’ across the western world. By comparison the meat from pigs slaughtered at 5-6 months, no matter what their breed, diet or how they are ‘finished’, is a flimsy excuse for something our ancestors cured with salt, smoke and spices to get them through the year. I call this ‘veal pork’. It might taste good grilled, sautéed, or roasted, but it has no place in a curing cabinet. I have yet to meet an artisan charcutier here in France that slaughters pigs so young. That is reserved for the industrial side of meat handling.
Charcuterie transforms fresh meat into a shelf stable product. It’s damn near impossible to do it with consistent results with pigs that are slaughtered too young. “A pig normally doesn’t reach maturity until it gets all its permanent teeth at 1 1/2 year old*”. “Most pigs are fully grown by the time they are three years old, but some pigs will keep growing until they are four or five years old. Generally speaking, pigs live for about 10-15 years.’** Following the industrial standards on a homesteader or artisan charcutier level seems a shame. This is where we have a chance to do it right and take the time to do it right.
The reason i am writing this is that I was dismayed to see in one discussion prompted on a facebook group of charcuterie fans that some folks thought it was okay to ‘practice’ on factory pork so you can make mistakes with a spending a fortune. I don’t get it. How does one learn to do anything well working with poor or inferior materials. I have witnessed the daily curing of thousands of pounds of pork over the last several years and there were no mistakes. No mistakes because classic techniques were followed carefully, respect for the raw material was foremost and the meat itself was of superior quality. The farmers didn’t raise a few sloppily fed and carelessly slaughtered pigs to practice on. It was the fruit of their hard labor for 28 months. This is how i want my students to learn. From good people raising good animals and making good charcuterie. The Chapolard farm is not a storybook farm; it is, however, a very sustainable, prosperous well-respected farm.
I still have a lot to learn. I am thinking these days a lot about the scale of pig farming and how it can be profitable for all the participants. There are many interesting good models out there. I am lucky working here with Dominique Chapolard and his brothers. I believe that for the home cook, weekend meat warrior or small holder it is worth trying to work with the best product you can find. I have great faith in small farms trying to create better raw material and not starve.
Having cured a lot of small goods over the years here at Camont, I only just made my first big commitment- a full air-cured (using salt only) traditional jambon- a whopping 20 pounds at finished weight having cured, dried and aged for a total of 12 months. It is a good ham. Would I have had such a good result with an inferior leg of pork? I doubt it. And then I would have had to eat the darn thing. Instead, I will slice my way through my ‘Birthday Ham’ and share it happily with friends and students. It really is delicious.
So when the conversations come around to making charcuterie based on respect for the animal, how about we let the little teenagers mature a bit more and develop the flavor and structure needed to produce a superior traditional product. Now about those other three legs…