Across the European continent, artisans to everyday people have contributed to the tradition of charcuterie. There’s an overwhelming variety of pork-based products alone — prosciutto, pancetta, guanciale, capocollo, salami, ’nduja and mortadella are just a handful of the most popular. Despite the diversity, most use just three things: salt, time and the right breed.

Hospitality speaks with The Agrarian Kitchen’s Rodney Dunn and Meatsmith butcher Troy Wheeler about the ins and outs of working with the whole hog.

Rodney Dunn wears a number of hats on any given day at The Agrarian Kitchen. He co-owns the Tasmanian venture with wife Séverine Demanet, with the concept now encompassing a five-acre farm with a cooking school and an eatery alongside its many gardens. On the roster of classes at The Agrarian Kitchen Cooking School & Farm is a lesson in whole pig charcuterie led by Dunn.

The style leans Italian, but according to Dunn, the fundamentals are consistent across cuisines. “If someone wants to go away and do something that’s more German, French or Polish, it’s all much of a muchness,” he says.

Dunn’s childhood in Griffith on the New South Wales Riverina, a well-known Italian enclave, is behind the lean toward products including salami, pancetta, capocollo, lardo and prosciutto. “Griffith is where I first got taught to do it,” says Dunn. “Everything else is a progression of that.”

There are differences, yes, but those differences are mostly in flavour not technique. Many of the Italians in Griffith are from Calabria, Dunn points out, and they’ll only use salt and pepper to make salami. Travel through Italy and you’ll find villages where fennel seeds are a must. “Further south, there’s garlic, red wine and paprika,” says Dunn. “Go across to Hungary and they’ll take red capsicum, blend it up and add it into the fermented sausage.”

The point is differences in outcome are less a result of the curing or fermentation methods and more a result of what other ingredients are added or the pork that’s used. The upshot? Chefs who can master the basics will have a host of options for their charcuterie menu.

Troy Wheeler isn’t a chef, but he’s definitely mastered the basics and a whole lot more in his 18-plus years as a butcher. Together with chef Andrew McConnell, Wheeler opened the first Meatsmith butchery in 2017. There are now three outlets across Melbourne, with the team specialising in making small goods for restaurants.

“If a restaurant is looking for a customised product, whether it’s a particular salami or a different type of ham that’s not commonly found in a marketplace, we accommodate that,” says Wheeler. “For me, it’s about utilising everything, so nothing goes to waste. My customers really enjoy pork racks and rolled loins, but legs aren’t as popular, so I need to use different methods and techniques to turn them into something so it’s not wasted.”

As with any area of cooking that has a long, multicultural history, the subject of charcuterie is complex and Dunn is quick to acknowledge he doesn’t know it all. He does, however, have decades of experience curing and fermenting pork. For beginners, he recommends starting with salami. When curing a whole muscle, there’s nowhere to hide. “With salami, you can play with ratios and add extra fat in,” says Dunn. “Whereas with a prosciutto, if you don’t have enough fat, it’s just going to be dry and very salty; you might as well go to Woolworths and buy it from the deli.”

Salamis also have a shorter curing time, which means sinking fewer resources. “Salami is about an eight- to 10-week cure time,” says Dunn. “You just have a shorter window that you need to be looking out for stuff. If you wait two years for a prosciutto and something’s wrong, you’ve put your eggs in one basket.”

Wheeler agrees prosciutto is at the more difficult end of the spectrum, however he thinks other types of whole muscle charcuterie can be a good place to start. “Prosciutto is a little more difficult because there are a couple of points within the ageing process where things can go wrong,” says Wheeler. “But things like guanciale and pancetta are really good places to start because they are whole muscle curing: it’s just salting and giving it time to mature to the point where it’s ready to eat.”

Dunn agrees there are easier whole muscles to start with. His pick is pork neck: “I would encourage them to start with capocollo.” Salami, Wheeler suggests, requires extensive training. “I think that you need to be taught by somebody who knows safe practices for making fermented products,” he says. “You need to know a lot about the different types of bacteria and mold spores that are harmful to you and the ones that create flavour and texture in your product. It’s important to do lots of research and seek out advice from professional people, so you can do it safely for the consumer.”

It’s also important to consider the differences between making charcuterie in-house at a restaurant and producing small goods for sale through a butcher — Wheeler is working within a stricter regulatory framework. He has to use a starter culture to make salami by law, whereas Dunn could choose not to. Both advocate for its use regardless.

“The traditional method is just salt and time,” says Wheeler. “You’re running the risk of contamination or of things not quite working because of different variables.” You’re also running the risk of a less-than- stellar end product. “I always add a starter culture, because you’re just playing with fire if you don’t,” says Dunn.

Starter culture is a must, but which one? “There are lots of different starter cultures that will give you different flavour profiles,” says Wheeler. Dunn uses a pre-made starter culture, but stresses they’re not all created equal. “It’s really important to get one that is going to give you a good flavour in the end,” he says. “Some are really quick and the problem with the really quick ones is they make everything taste really acidic.”

The result will be a sour-like taste — think mass-produced salami. Instead, Dunn recommends T-SPX Bactoferm starter, which is made using a traditional European culture. For whole muscles, Dunn opts for equilibrium curing, which entails working out the amount of salt you should use by weighing the muscle first.

Just because Dunn recommends starting with salami, doesn’t mean it’s a walk in the park. One of the chef–restaurateur’s early attempts went pear-shaped. “We hung them in front of an open window,” recalls Dunn. “It was the absolute wrong thing
to do. The skin outside dried out and that stops any of the inside moisture getting out. It’s called case hardening.”

Newbie or expert, there are a few ways to tell whether things are going to plan. “I think smell is always a very good indicator,” says Wheeler. “Touch as well: when something doesn’t feel quite right texturally, it’s wet or sticky. And sight, if the mold that’s appearing is not familiar, you should always ask questions.”

There’s some science to it as well. Making sure pH levels drop to the right levels within the right time period — about 48 hours — is crucial for food safety and palatability. Prosciutto or salami, the quality of the meat always matters. “I raise my own pigs or work with others who we know and will meet the specifications we want,” says Dunn.

Wheeler is currently focused on working with a variety of heritage breeds called Tamworth, Hampshire and Durock. Why? It’s partly driven by ethos, partly by the characteristics of the breeds, which work well in charcuterie applications.

“The first two, in particular, are the rarest breeds that exist in Australia and we like to bring awareness to those things,” says Wheeler. “Through conscious consumption, we’re able to help bring those breed stocks up to a level where they aren’t on the endangered list anymore. Australia is quite lucky to have some of these bloodlines that date back centuries and I think it’s pretty important we retain them.”

While the Tamworth comes with plenty of back fat, Hampshires are bigger, heavier set and have larger muscles. “Their legs are really good for prosciutto and the back fat and meat content in the shoulders are also really good for salamis,” says Wheeler.

It’s a point underscored by Dunn’s experience. At The Agrarian farm, 45 minutes’ drive from Hobart, Dunn rears Wessex Saddlebacks and Berkshires. “I was after an old breed of pig and that’s what was available to me,” says Dunn. “They were bred at a time when fat was valuable.”

Lifestyle is also important. Opinion is divided as to how significant environment and feed are compared to breed — Dunn says the two are 90 per cent of the equation, while Wheeler thinks breed is equally important — but wherever you fall, it’s clear none of these factors can be ignored. “All of those things have to work in harmony,” says Wheeler. “They have to have a happy life that’s truly free range and be fed an appropriate diet.”

Meatsmith are guided by their relationship with small producers and farmers, especially in drought- and fire-affected times. “From time to time we find inconsistencies, but I think that’s part and parcel of true free-range product,” he says. “Sometimes it will be different, but the quality will always be the same. We communicate that through to the end consumer, whether it’s a restaurant or retail customers.”

For the many chefs and restaurateurs who can’t rear their own pigs, Dunn recommends working with a good butcher who can supply older pigs. “Look for over 12 months old, two years old is even better,” he says.

Reduced to their simplest, most small goods are nothing more than salt, time and pork, but the likes of Dunn and Wheeler are proving there’s a whole lot more to working with hog. For brave chefs, butchers and restaurateurs, making charcuterie in-house will enhance understanding and respect for produce and process.

Image credit: Harvard Wang

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