Like all cooking, curing meats is about creating something greater than the sum of its parts. Most go through a relatively similar process of curing in salt (and sometimes sugar and herbs/spices) and then hanging to dry out. With dry-cured meats you’re usually aiming to lose 30 per cent of their total weight before they’re ready to serve. For chefs it’s about having complete control over the details, from choosing the best possible meat, to the mix of spices or herbs to flavour it with, and how dry, firm and aged the result.
For Luke Powell, chef/owner at LP’s Quality Meats in Chippendale, it started with a month-long stage (a chef term for a learning-based stint at another restaurant) at Upstate New York restaurant, Blue Hill. It was there that Powell was exposed to the farm-totable approach of butchering whole beasts and turning them into charcuterie. For him, it was a revelation. He told his chef mentor, “’This is what I want to do, as much as possible’ ... [I] just got a bit hooked.”
LP’s doesn’t have a designated curing space. As a result, Powell explains, “A lot of our charcuterie items are not just dry cured but also cooked. We do belly hams, which we cure in a ham brine. We do a bierwurst – which is almost like a rustic, not-so-smooth mortadella, using the Young Henrys Newtowner [beer].” The team at LP’s has perfected its dry-cured pork neck (coppa), a feat which Powell is most proud of, given the limitations of its facilities.
Porteño head chef Marz Peita began experimenting with curing meats about two years ago. “After we started mastering it, we just thought that we’d change upstairs completely and focus on charcuterie.”
A change in direction like that is not easy when you consider prosciutto takes well over a year to cure. “I’ve got four at the moment that are hanging in the warehouse ... and they’re still like a year and a half away from finishing because they’re so big,” Peita laughs. “They’re like my children! I go and check on them every week and make sure they’re okay, give them a bath.”
At Nomad on Foster Street in Surry Hills, curing meat was part of the ambitious project from the start. Head chef Jacqui Challinor explains that to get a head start on charcuterie, its meats, “Were in an off-site kitchen for about a year beforehand.” The restaurant houses a handsome, purpose-built glass curing cabinet showcasing the goods.
Unlike many restaurants, Nomad has the resources to do its own butchering, buying in three whole pigs a week, using the bellies and loins for the dinner menu, breaking down the legs and shoulders for salumi and then the bones for stock. “That was the whole idea of the restaurant – using everything and doing everything from scratch,” says Challinor.
For Brent Savage, though he’d played around with it a little at Bentley Bar, it was when he and business partner Nick Hildebrandt opened a wine bar – Monopole – that he really started to get serious about charcuterie. “I guess we were big believers in only using it if it was better than what you could buy,” Savage says. “Better is probably the wrong word; more authentic, perhaps. And it’s a really interesting process as to the control you have on the end result.” Which means it was also a matter of trial and error. But for Savage that’s just part of the joy of charcuterie. “It’s very much a craft. It’s about touching and feeling and being patient.”
Here are some interesting examples to try around town.
Cured Duck Breast
At Monopole, Brent Savage cures Aylesbury duck breast in a mix of salt, sugar and spices including star anise, coriander and black pepper. Before it’s completely cured it’s seared on the skin side, adding a really dark flavour to the cure. Then it’s hung for nine to 12 days. The result is sweet, aromatic and earthy.
71A Macleay Street, Potts Point
Coppa is a delicate, whole-muscle, dry-cured meat, made from pork neck. Luke Powell cures his in salt and sugar, flipping regularly to ensure an even cure. If it still feels a little flabby he’ll leave it in there another day. Next, it’s stuffed inside the beef bung (natural intestinal casing). It’s then hung until it loses 30 per cent of its weight. At LP’s it’s served with mustard, olives and pickled jalapeños.
LP’s Quality Meats
Suite 1, 16 Chippen Street, Chippendale
Bresaola is whole-muscle, air-dried beef. It’s a deep red wine colour and often one of the few beef stars on a charcuterie platter. Marz Peita uses Girello wagyu, usually from Blackmore or Rangers Valley. He cures it in a salt/herb/ spice mix that includes rosemary and juniper. It’s refrigerated and turned regularly in the cure, then washed in red wine. Finally it gets trussed up and hung for two to three weeks. Peita gives them a regular misting with water because although you’re looking to dry them, if the outside dries out too much it’ll stop releasing the moisture from the interior.
Wallaby and Juniper Salami
Nomad plays around with a number of meat/ flavour combinations with its salami, including this wallaby and juniper example. It uses Flinders Island wallaby rump which is minced down with pork fat, then mixed with salt and herbs/spices (juniper, pepper, garlic among others). Then it’s pumped into lamb bungs (a natural, long, narrow casing) and hung. It’s ready to eat after about three weeks.