Pignorance is not bliss: A weekend making salumi

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People who enjoy sausage and respect the law should not watch either being made.

That curt assessment is usually attributed to 19th-century statesman Otto von Bismarck, and I can certainly agree with him about the second part. For example, it's hard to see how all the maneuvering and wheeling-and-dealing and horse trading going on around the 2007 Farm Bill is going to lead to anything tasty.

But sausage is another story. I have adored prosciutto, salami, and other cured meats since I lived in Naples as a kid, but I'm less excited to eat them now unless I know the provenance of the animal, which is rare. So when a new acquaintance said she was looking for volunteers for a weekend of sausage-making, my ears pricked up. And when she added that her group had bought a 400-pound locally raised hog that would be arriving at a friendly restaurant whole (but dead), and leaving in the form of as many cured and fresh sausages as possible, I canceled all my previous plans for Saturday and Sunday.

salumi_af.jpgTeam Pig comprised Anya Fernald (left), director of food service programs for the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF); her Italian husband, Renato Sardo (the longtime head of Slow Food International, now working on the new Jack London Square marketplace project); Anya's cooking-club compadres Erica and Tony, whose Italian grandfather used to make his own prosciutto and liver sausage; plus assorted CAFF colleagues, friends, and family members. (Funnily enough, there were several other ex-vegetarians involved.)

This was Team Pig's second outing. They had bought a hog the previous year and, using Paul Bertolli's "Cooking by Hand" book as a guide, turned it into prosciutto and several kinds of salami that they hung in Anya's parents' basement in Berkeley to cure. About half the sausages had failed. "Some of them puffed up huge early on, so we knew they had bad gases and we tossed them," said Anya. "Others looked fine but were black inside when we cut into them." The other half were so good they were determined to improve their technique.

The likely culprit had been grinding the meat in a KitchenAid mixer, which had heated up too much and thus melted a lot of the fat, ruining the acid balance. This time, Anya had gotten permission to set up operations in the back kitchen of a top San Francisco restaurant whose chef was a friend. We would be able to use their industrial meat grinder and sausage stuffer, as well as call upon one of the chefs for help. Anya and Tony were also hoping to increase their success rate by focusing on just two types of cured sausage — spicy soppressata and toscano-style salami — along with a prosciutto and some pancetta.

Driving over the bridge Saturday morning, I was both excited and nervous. This would be the first time I had seen a whole-animal carcass destined for my plate. I was also worried that in my ignorance and clumsiness, I would somehow screw up whatever batch I was assigned to help with.

Turns out I needn't have worried on either account. The hog had been delivered to the restaurant earlier than expected — Team Pig member Dave had made good time after picking it up from farmer John Bledsoe in Davis. Dave, who is one of the born-again carnivores, said it was a little weird to see the two halves of the hog lying on the back seats of Bledsoe's minivan, but that he managed to put them — and the bags with the head and offal — in the back of the borrowed pickup without too much problem.

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When I got to the restaurant at the appointed time, the hog had already been reduced to two legs, two shoulders, and a torso, which was rapidly being turned into strips of belly and fatback by a tattooed, punkish guy who carved like a demon. He turned out to be Josh, a 23-year-old hotshot chef who'd come in on his day off to help "the bunch of amateurs who I heard were going to making sausage in our kitchen," as he put it later.

So while it was still recognizably an animal — legs with hooves, skin with hair follicles and even nipples — it was also already very much just meat. I did not experience the disgust and guilt I was expecting, and anyway there was no time to philosophize over it. We had 300 pounds of pork to process before the kitchen had to start getting ready for dinner. I immediately put on some gloves, grabbed a knife, and did what most people were doing: "leaning" the large pieces of muscle piled in front of us, by stripping away all the fat, tendons, and the thin membrane called silverskin. It was careful, tedious work, requiring frequent knife sharpening, but since we chatted as we sliced and scraped, it was also fun.

Later, after Josh and the others had reduced everything but one leg to their individual muscles and manageable parts, the head was brought out. This was more disturbing, particularly the eyelashes. They reminded me of the anatomical museum my husband and I had visited in Bern, Switzerland, which had many many human body parts preserved in formaldehyde, including skulls and brains cut into cross sections. It had been easy to look at those exhibits dispassionately, as fascinating glimpses of the human body's inner makeup, but somehow whenever fingernails or hair — eyelashes, mustaches, even pubic — were present, the subject would appear all of a sudden too human.

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And so it was with the pig. I held it, remembering the ones I had met at Clark Summit Farm, burrowing in the mud and pasture, squealing with excitement at a stranger. This one's eyeballs were visible under the thick lashes, as were its jagged teeth under its lips; a few bristles clung to its thick, fleshy snout. It was undeniably "animal," not yet having passed magically into my mental category for "meat," and it looked very sad and very dead. I watched anyway as, with a brutally elemental skill, Josh carved off the ears, jowls (for guanciale), the snout, and fleshy underside of the chin, then sawed the whole head in half with a hacksaw — all in under five minutes. This was the hardest part, and maybe I'm colder hearted than I thought, but it wasn't that hard. The pig was dead. Long live the pork.

Later, that night over at Anya's and Renato's, we ate fried bits of the ears and snout prepared by Sara, a visiting Italian who was interning at CAFF. (I had thought Sara had been making salumi since she was a toddler, somehow assuming it was a rite of passage for all Italians, but this was also her first time. Still, she volunteered to prepare the bits from the head — I think pork skills run in Italians' genes.)

"This is hardcore," said Dave, my fellow ex-vegetarian, as we sampled the ears. I was not a fan of their crunchy texture, but the "oink" was like bacon-flavored butter — delicious, as were the ribs.

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The next day, Easter Sunday, we actually made the sausage. The restaurant was gearing up for a full house and we were acutely aware that we were intruding on the space of the pasta makers and the pastry chefs (or at least I was, every time I went to wash my lardy hands in their sinks or bumped into someone backing out of the oven). We had only a five-pound scale, a small gram scale, and limited bowls and cutting boards with which to work, which made for some tricky bowl-juggling and math since Bertolli's recipe for toscano called for 18.25 pounds of lean pork, but we were making an additional half recipe, and the soppressata for 14.5 pounds, plus assorted pounds of fat and grams of salt, Instacure, and spices.

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salumi_dq.jpgIt took us all day. Some weighed and mixed the spices while others ground the pork in the restaurant's industrial-strength machine. I cut fat in 1/8- to 1/4-inch dice until my back ached from leaning over the too-low table. Taking a break to grind the pork for the soppressata, then mix the ingredients with my hands, I tried not to worry about messing it up. I could feel the meat getting sticky, the signal that the fat had bonded properly.

And then finally, after a hurried lunch of bread and cheese, it was time to stuff the sausages into the casings that had been smuggled in from Italy. There were big intestines from cattle and oxen for the salamis, and small ones from sheep for the fresh sausages.

We referred to all the sizes as "bungs," and there were many jokes about finding their openings, or bung holes, in order to stuff the ground pork mixture in, followed by "heh heh, heh heh" à la Beavis and Butthead. At home later, seeking further enlightenment on the subject of bungs and finding little on the Internet, I turned to my collection of reference books. Alas, my "Dictionary of Phrase and Fable," "Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary," and other relics of my English-major past failed me entirely. The website for the Oxford English Dictionary (subscription required), however, defines "bung" as a "stopper, specifically a large cork stopper for the 'mouth' of a cask [for holding wine], i.e. the hole in the bulge by which it is filled." None of the OED's definitions for bung, and there are many, even mention intestines. And yet the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has a page for small-scale sausage making that helpfully describes them thusly:

Sausages have historically been manufactured in natural casings. Natural casings are almost exclusively prepared from different parts of the alimentary canal of pigs and ruminants. Pig casings are derived from the stomachs, small intestines (pig casings, smalls or rounds), large intestines (caps and middles) and terminal straight end of the large intestines (bungs). Cattle casings are obtained from the oesophagus (weasands), small intestines (rounds or runners), caecum (bungs), large intestines (middles) and urinary bladders. Only the small intestines of sheep are used for sausage casings.

But I digress.

Stuffing the casings was a two-person job, and required more finesse than I possessed, so I volunteered to hold the casings while my skilled partner Angela, sister of Tony, stuffed in handful after handful.

"These are too flaccid," pronounced Anya, reviewing our first few. "They need to be harder."

Heh heh. Heh heh.

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We stuffed harder and tore a few bungs, which we felt guilty about because they were rather expensive. So if we could, we cut them where they'd torn and made shorter soppressatas. Meanwhile, Anya and her brother-in-law Guy set up the restaurant's sausage-stuffing machine, which allowed you to just to thread the casings onto a tube; then it injected them with the mixture at high pressure. It took them a while to get used to the machine — there was much high-speed, I-Love-Lucy-style panic as the casings were filled and twisted, filled and twisted. Fearing disaster, I declined my turn on the meat squirter.

After what seemed like eons, we were done. It was 3:30 p.m., just in time to skedaddle out of the restaurant before they needed our table to prep for Easter dinner. In two days, 10 or so people had filled some 40 or so cured salamis plus at least 50 fresh sweet and spicy Italian sausages, salted a 20-pound leg for prosciutto, and prepped 15 pounds of belly for pancetta. There were a few loins left over that Sara wanted to try a special marinade on before stuffing them whole into a bung, and lots of fat and random bits.

Yet aparently, we weren't finished.

"We still have to tie these up," said the indefatigable Anya, who has the deepest reserves of energy of anyone I've ever met who also manages to look like a supermodel. What she meant was that the thickest toscano and soppressata salamis needed a corset of twine so as not to burst their casings during fermentation. This we would do back at Tony, Erica, and Margaret's house, along with vacuum-packing the fresh sausages — some of which we would grill and eat that night as our reward.

My lower back ached, my feet hurt, and I smelled overwhelmingly like raw meat, which after a few hours is indistinguishable from raging human b.o. (But it wasn't me, I swear.) I also hadn't done a thing for the daily news Digest, or asked another Ethicurean to handle it in my absence. But I couldn't abandon Team Pig. Not seeing the meat all the way through felt like bailing out on the march back to camp or something. So I drove home as fast I could, tried not to smell myself, threw the Digest together, then arrived at the Team Pig headquarters in Berkeley just in time to help tie the last few toscanos and get trained on the vacuum-sealing machine to finish packaging the fresh ones.

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salumi_fresh.jpgThen, with much anticipation, we grilled some sausage.

Although Renato pronounced it better than last year's, Anya and others (including me), thought it was oddly lean — almost like a diet or turkey sausage — and wondered whether we'd messed up the fat proportions, or whether the plate on the grinder had been too fine. Oh well. A fresh sausage you've butchered, trimmed, leaned, ground, mixed, and stuffed entirely with your own hands still tastes better than anything I've ever bought in a grocery store.

And you can't even buy this kind of sausage in a grocery store, or even in a restaurant, because the USDA rather frowns on hanging sausage in an environment where the temperature and humidity aren't controlled by machine. The government has been known to bust restaurants following the old methods, and make them destroy hundreds of pounds of precious, pasture-raised meat, all in the name of consumer safety. But people have been curing meat this way long before there were walk-in refrigerators, let alone pH meters (which Anya had). You know when sausage like this fails, or goes bad — it's unmistakable.

That's the best part of the whole weekend — I no longer fear making sausage. Start with good pork, get a bunch of hard workers and sharp knives together, and next time, the salumi will be staying with me! However, I still need to make friends with someone with a commercial meat grinder….

2 Responsesto “Pignorance is not bliss: A weekend making salumi”

  1. Nosher of the North says:

    I wish I lived in Berkeley, because I would have been there for the whole thing.

  2. smoked char says:

    Nice looking sausages! Where can you buy sausage casings in the bay area?