One of my earliest memories of my family being all together and cooking was the weekend every year that we made charcuterie.
I was about 6 at the time. The not so small group of immediate family gathered at my grandfathers house early on a Sunday morning in the middle of winter and shuffled into the icy garage like we were going to church. The church organ was replaced by the sound of the vintage espresso makers rumbling one after another in a non stop stream of dense black coffee shared around while we waited for the ‘sleeping’ pig to arrive, (as my mother put it).
I remember being all rugged up against the cold, hovering between the legs of uncles and aunties and never far from the fascinating and gruesome action of breaking down a whole pig into it’s different parts.
Inside the cleared out garage, there was always a low burning fire with a huge pot on it. This would be endlessly topped up with vegetables form the garden and all the morsels of pork that wouldn’t make it into the finished batch of salami, coppa, prosciutto, and various terrines. There seemed to be fifty people in the room at any one time, all with a pre ordained task according to an unknowable heirarchy, which could have been history, age, or just the general ability to swing a large knife in a crowded room without hurting anyone.
The noise and chatter and laughter was almost always overwhelming. Wine was divided into two parts, some for the recipes and some for warmth against the cold. One of the aunties had the task of keeping everyone fed, sharing the bottomless pot of slow stewed pork and vegetables into small bowls and served with a rustic chunk of homemade bread torn from a wheel size loaf. The smells of food coated everything and everyone, and the coffee just kept on coming, ‘corrected’ with a little nip of grappa as the day went on. Everyone had a task to do which wasn’t always equal, some did more work, and some did more storytelling and wine drinking. The memories that have lingered the longest are the laughter, the rich food smells and the need for the afternoon siesta.
Even though the gathering is smaller these days, and the production style has changed a little, the knowledge and sharing is still at the heart of it all.
And knowledge is something that should never be wasted.
In today’s post of “Ask the Professionals” we talk to non other than my dear Mama. She’s been part of the process for as long as I’ve been alive, and in that amount of time, you learn trick or two.
How long have you been making charcuterie? How did you learn how to do it?
As a daughter of a migrant from southern Italy, we moved to Australia when I was very young, our family kept some of the cultural practices and traditions.
Family is very important and food is a great way to share time and love. Preparing any meal, making tomato sauce, or baking biscotti is much more meaningful if there is a large family and friends to share it with.
One of our annual events is making sausages and coppa. Traditionally it’s done at the coldest time of the year as the curing of the meat is done over 3-4 weeks. If you have a large cool room I guess it could be done at any time of the year. Personally, we decided that making about 10 kg of sausages and 3 or 4 pieces of coppa is about enough for ourselves and our children and also share with friends.
What kinds of charcuterie do you make at home?
We make 10kg of pork sausages, 3 or 4 of the pork coppa which are about 2kg each, and 2 or 3 pieces of bresaola.
I am guessing that history plays a big part in the story, are you still following family tradition or have you adapted your own version?
I have kept to the original receipe for the pork sausages and the coppa, as I haven’t found anything else that I like better. With the bresaola I have adapted what I know with what I think works to add flavour.
What time of the year do you make them and why?
We make them in July as it’s the coldest time of the year. The cool even temperature of winter is good for drying. If you have a cool room they can be done at any time.
I always hear stories of how curing meats is quite difficult to do at home and fraught with danger and botulism. Is that true?
Yes that’s true as the meat needs to be kept cold. If temperature is over 12 deg the meat spoils.
Can you run us through the process, where do you start?
We order the minced meat (quite coarsely minced) from our butcher to include 8 kg of meat and 2 kg of fat depending on your preference. If there is too little fat the sausages will be too dry. Typically the butchers allow 30% fat. The butchers refer to this type of pig as a chopper, which is on older pig, not a porchetta size as this has none or little flavour.
Are there any special techniques that are important in the process?
Ensure the meat is well mixed and massaged with the spices and salt. Do a taste test by placing a few spoonfuls into a hot frypan and cook for about 5 minutes. Taste and decide whether you would like to add more salt or spices.
How important is the flavouring and additions to the meat in the final product?
Spices and salt are very important, as without them there is no taste. You can add or leave out what you don’t like, or add other flavors
Coppa, or Capocollo is made with the (unground) neck / shoulder of pork.
Varying the fat content changes the texture and taste of the final product. This one is a leaner sausage with around 20 percent fat, with the addition of chilli flakes and fennel seeds.
For the sausages:
8 kg meat largely minced
2 kg fat
6 tablespoonfuls Paprika
6 tablespoonfuls dry course chili flakes
4 tablespoonfuls aniseed
4 tablespoonfuls course cracked pepper
2 glasses red wine
Mix together on a flat surface and massage well to ensure flavour goes through.
Do a taste test. If other spices are required add to the meat and mix again. Taste at every stage to make sure.
Filling the skins:
Use the sausage machine to fill the skins ensuring there is no air inside by pricking the skins to allow air out. Tie in length of about 25cm and hang in a dry cool place for about 2-3 weeks. While drying water will drip from the outer skin through the holes this allows the drying process. If mould forms on the outer skins, wipe off with a wipe dipped in oil at the time they are dry and ready to vacuum pack.
What about casings, can you run us through them. (Kinds, sizes, availability etc)
Casings are available from butcher suppliers. We use 50mm size for the sausages. There are ox intestines or pork available that have been cleaned and salted and usually 1 metre per kg of meat is required. There are also man made casings available. The suppliers or butcher can advise on best options for you if you tell them what you are doing.
Are there any other danger areas to look out for when curing?
Ensure they are kept in a cool stable temperature. And no flies are around of course. Otherwise disaster!
Sample one of the sausages after about 2 weeks when they feel firm to touch. They should lose about 30% of their weight when they are ready. Don’t allow them to dry out too much.
So there you have it people, the magical mystery of charcuterie. Meat, salt, spices and time. And a shared knowledge that has been part of the family for more than a century.
Get adventurous, get making.