Charcuterie is an aspect of the culinary arts that has long interested me both theoretically and on a more practical level. I find it truly wonderful that something that began as a necessity grew into the art form that we know today.
On the broadest level it encompasses the vast gamut of skills from curing and smoking to drying and salting. In short it is about preservation. It was about making sure that precious parts of an animal that would spoil quickly were not wasted and could be eaten throughout the year, long after the prime cuts had been roasted and consumed. It was about thrift. It was about economy. It was about the reality of slaughter and respect for the animal that had just been killed, making sure that as little as possible was wasted.
In the days before refrigeration and deep freezing, our ancestors had to come up with myriad other ways in which to preserve the meat from the pig or cow or sheep that was far too large to eat within the few short weeks (days sometimes) before the meat started to spoil.
Thankfully, these were tasty and delicious enough for the practice to continue and flourish even after technology made it possible to preserve meat simply with the application of cold temperatures and even now we still enjoy the salamis, hams, pâtés, terrines and other items that they perfected over generations.
But charcuterie is not a practice that many home cooks embrace and it is becoming a lost art beyond the specialist. Which is a shame because many aspects of the practice are easy enough to replicate in any domestic kitchen – not to mention, incredibly cheap.
This surprises some people – pâtés, terrines and salamis are expensive when bought in delicatessens – but the components themselves are the cheaper cuts of meat, those which could not be simply roasted over hot coals: the tough bits, the offal, the bits that need a little more care and attention in order to become delicious.
In the spirit of adventure we set about attempting the charcutier’s art for ourselves this weekend. Keen to keep things relatively simple we shied away from chorizos, salamis or cured hams (plus we really don’t have the space to hang a full pig’s leg just yet) and chose instead to make a pâté and some rillettes, which are one of my single favourites in the charcutier’s entire armoury.
The first time I ever had rillettes was when I lived and worked in west London and invariably got my lunch from the best deli-café I’ve ever had the pleasure to dine in (sadly now a hair salon). They are rich, decadent and so tasty that even the mere mention can bring a smile to my face (see above for Tony Bourdain’s rather excellent summation of this glorious food).
Made with either duck, goose or pork cooked long and slow in fat they are not for those who view calorific items with scorn or trepidation but given the scarcity with which they are eaten, and the all-natural origin of the ingredients, I personally don’t think this is an issue – I’d much rather eat a few spoons of this sort of food once a week than gorge on a microwave chicken tikka masala or other such culinary monstrosity.
For our version of this classic French pâté type preparation we used pork belly and shoulder to be cooked down in some back fat. Once the belly had been skinned (which we use to make pork scratchings – nothing wasted here) it was cubed and placed in a large pot with the cubed shoulder cuts (often used to make high grade sausages) and the rendered fat. After the addition of a little water and a bouquet garni it was cooking time. And it takes a while. Three hours at a tremulous simmer so that the occasional bubble will make its way to the surface before bursting is necessary in order to cook the pork to the ideal texture.
Once cool, the pork was then shredded, seasoned with salt, pepper and a little allspice, before being left for a day or so to allow the flavours to develop, meld together and take on that distinctive Gallic character.
This is food alchemy at its finest. The gradual transformation of base ingredients into a finished product that is infinitely more than the sum of its parts and just to be sure, we made a lot. Certainly enough to keep us, and others, dwelling in happy porcine reverie until well into the New Year. Mmm, rillettes.