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Owen Lane of The Magpie fills a casing with rabbit sausage. Photo by Isaac Harrell
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Phillip Perrow starts making pork belly rillettes by curing the meat with flowers, honey, salt and spices; then rinsing and cooking it. Photo by james Dickinson
Drag your tongue slowly back and forth, across the inside of your mouth, just below your lower lip. Firm, but soft, meaty — fired by the mandibular nerve, stroking this kid-glove-like skin recalls the silkiness of Edwards Surryano ham. Eating a slice of salty charcuterie becomes the sensual exploration of a nibble. Carnality in a bite, cured ham offers seconds of gustatory pleasure more fulfilling than an all-day sucker. Charcuterie, whether it be slices of meltaway pork or a grill-charred hot dog, is decadent. Making charcuterie is economical but time-consuming. Just as it's easier to buy fresh pasta, which can be rolled at home for pennies, it's easier to buy prosciutto than to hang it. Here's a tale of seven chefs who've eschewed the easy way.
Mike Pendergrast, culinary instructor at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College, teaches classical techniques from an era before steady refrigeration as part of his garde manger (cold dishes) curriculum.
"I focus a lot on charcuterie when I teach," Pendergrast says. "One week is sausage, one week is brining, curing and smoking. We make pastrami, then a week of pâté, terrine and forcemeats."
At On the Rox, the Shockoe Bottom restaurant he co-owns, Pendergrast makes "a warm veal and mushroom terrine," he says. "I call it meatloaf."
Pendergrast demands technique from his students. His ideal charcuterie board includes a smooth chicken or rabbit terrine and a country-standard terrine — that is, coarsely ground pork with pistachio, next to pile of house-made pickles to cut through the fat, rounded out with chicken-liver mousse. "I will put my chicken-liver mousse up against anyone's," he says. "But, if you really want to talk charcuterie in Richmond, you should go to Blue Goat."
Chef Kevin LaCivita of The Blue Goat is walking a surgically clean line in the kitchen when I arrive at the Grove Avenue restaurant. He asks me to wait outside the kitchen as he preps.
"Charcuterie is European comfort food. I grew up on it. My grandmother used to make her own pepperoni. I don't stray too far from my comfort zone here," LaCivita says. "I use all local meat. I use its skin, belly and offal." He adds, "Charcuterie boards are great for the bar. Besides cured meats, we include cheeses, pickled peppers and olive tapenade."
We sit under a chalkboard in the dining room that lists LaCivita's suppliers: Ashley Farms provides rabbits; Piney River Farms produces Berkshire pigs and another local farm delivers goats.
"We've hung whole goat legs for proscuitto," he says. "We make our own terrines and pâté, duck pastrami, pork and goat sausage. I cure rabbit bellies and fry them in strips." LaCivita adds that his kitchen cooks everything from an animal's head and ears to its tail and feet. At his annual snout-to-tail dinner in September, an animal is butchered, and the resulting dish is matched with reserve wines. Last year's menu included braised trotters over spaetzle, paired with a Barolo.
Avalon's John Hall didn't grow up with an Italian grandmother. He studied how to make his favorites: lardo, Italian fatback; lomo, made from tenderloin; and guanciale, pork jowl, on his own.
"Charcuterie involves research and experimentation. There's a book most of us use as a jump-off point, Charcuterie ," by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn, he says. "I keep logs with cure dates, cure times, hang dates and hang times. I look at the interior of the product and see how it's coming along. Things drip out of the meat because of the salt. I keep an eye on it."
Avalon always has a chef's selection of charcuterie, Hall says. "I am big on the idea of slow food, making a few manipulations and allowing nature to take its course.
"As a chef, I'm required to get food out quickly, often by sautéing," he adds. "I appreciate making something, leaving it alone for a month and watching it transform into beauty."
Caleb Shriver's thing of beauty is pork belly from Polyface Farm, with padrón pepper romesco sauce, created when fellow Aziza's on Main chef Phillip Perrow (soon to be his business partner, with Michelle Peake, at the new Dutch and Co. restaurant in Church Hill) was on a flower kick. They coated the pork belly with honey, chopped flowers and salt. After 12 hours, the washed pork belly still smelled like flowers.
"As a chef, you want to do everything. You dabble," Shriver says. "Right now we are trying to focus on charcuterie items that are compositions, instead of a plate with pickles and accoutrements.
"I serve ‘face bacon' at Aziza's — might as well be upfront about it," he continues. "I peel the face off the pig, then cure, smoke, slice and serve it on a sandwich. It's priced low so people will try it. My pig face terrine on sourdough rye bread is $6."
For a farm dinner, Shriver made mortadella, "which is basically bologna, sliced thin and drizzled with olive oil, tossed with arugula, warm figs and balsamic [vinegar]," he says. "I served the meat cold, like deli rounds. The leftover mortadella became a sauce for orecchiette with rockfish, which doesn't sound good, but it was."
Tim Bereika, executive chef at Secco Wine Bar, also deserves charcuterie props, says Shriver. "His presentation is very nice."
When I meet with Bereika, he's readying a Moroccan lamb terrine for sampling at River City Cellars.
"We are going to start selling our charcuterie next door," he says. The Moroccan spiced lamb terrine is made using lamb from Border Springs Farm with baharat (a blend of spices from the Middle East), pearl onions, raisins and olives. "It's unique."
Bereika adds, "I also like Secco's chicken-thigh confit, salted overnight with fresh thyme and vad au van." Vad au van is a masala mix that smells warm and exotic, like an Indian street fare.
"I learned charcuterie in Italy," Bereika says, "and took a class at J. Sargeant Reynolds. Two things I like to make more than anything are charcuterie and pasta."
Joe Sparatta, chef and partner with Heritage restaurant (set to open in October in the former Six Burner space), agrees that making charcuterie, as with pasta, "can be pretty economical when you do it yourself. It's expensive to purchase."
When working in the kitchen at Pasture, Sparatta made scrapple using all the parts — head, brain, kidneys and liver — alongside chef/partner Jason Alley, who consults for The National Pork Board.
"Jason does his own hams," says Sparatta. "He cures city hams. You'll see it all over the menu at Comfort. City hams are brined for about 15 days, submerged in liquid the whole time. They're called ‘wet hams.' "
In the Carver neighborhood, The Magpie's neo-Victorian dining room features an antique meat grinder that blends into the restaurant's Aubrey Beardsley-meets-icehouse décor.
"We always have a sausage of the day," says chef/owner Owen Lane. "We've smoked pheasant sausage, chorizo and cheddarwurst. I don't think sausage will ever come off the menu."
Lane is smitten with his goat sausage, blue cheese and cracked pepper plate served with rosemary custard, which has sweetness that cuts the fat.
"I'll take a product I'm not thinking of using, say the fat cap on a round of prosciutto di Parma, shave it, beat it up in a Kitchen Aid, add truffle oil and sell it as a $4 bar bite. It's so rich you can't eat much, but it's packed with flavor.
"For me, charcuterie is fun," Lane says. "I take everything I love about food, street food, fair food, fine dining and shove it all together. Don't be too serious. Do what you love or you'll drive yourself crazy."