Pretend you're a Neanderthal. You've just hunted down a wild boar, and you're already feeling depressed that you'll only get to eat a little part of it before those pesky bugs start in and ruin it for everyone. But as you're winding down for the evening by the fire outside of your cave with your special lady friend, you notice something: Bugs don't fly inside the smoke. Well, well, well, you think (slowly). You hang the meat over the fire and let it smoke through the night, and the next, and the next. The bugs do, in fact, leave it alone. And your efforts are rewarded with delicious, slow-cured meat. You are the world's first charcutier.
Fast-forward to now, our modern plate stacked with papery salumi and other hard sausages, hams, little pots of rillettes, slices of terrines, pâté and confit. The smoke — and the salt, discovered as a pork preservative a bit later — are still in use, but the process has been shaped and transformed by countless hands throughout history (especially French, Spanish, German and Italian history).
The Roman Empire helped it along, taking an interest in adjusting salt content for flavor, and as populations grew, preserved meat became a measure of one's wealth. If you had a giant, well-stocked dry cellar, you were kind of a big deal; you might even have a garde manger hanging around keeping tabs on the meat.
It was really the French in the Middle Ages who took the reins of flavor adjustments. The first wave of what we think of as charcuterie — the word derives from chair (flesh) and cuit (cooked) — was born when the French separated the butchers from the charcutiers, the guys who did the smoking, pickling, salting or curing.
Different varieties of meatloaf, sausage and pâté started cropping up as the charcutiers got competitive and wanted to differentiate themselves. Then those processes spread and changed again: new taste buds, new products. In Germany, it was frankfurters; in Italy, salami and bologna; in Spain, chorizo and jamón. And then, with the migration from Europe to the United States, Pennsylvania's sausages and Virginia's famous cured and smoked hams became emblematic of what would become American charcuterie.
Of course, at this point, there's a lot you can't do with charcuterie legally in the United States. Meat sitting out in the breeze for months just doesn't fly with the Food and Drug Administration. Licensed facilities, refrigeration and packaging are the rules of the game now — the rules created for industrial food production — and going back to the centuries-old preparations, despite its proven efficacy, simply can't be done if the goal is market-ready salami. It's frustrating to a lot of chefs who want to explore the history of their craft, not to mention to the farmstead butchers who supply them and the diners who enjoy their food.
You can get great charcuterie in Richmond, though, despite the slate of rules. Belmont Butchery's (15 N. Belmont Ave.) and Salt Pork's (at farmers markets around town) bacon, prosciutto, hams and sausage are unparalleled feats of cured meatiness, and chef Joe Sparatta at Heritage (1627 W. Main St.) makes magic happen not only with the meat he orders, but with the fat, too.
"When I get half a pig, I take off the leaf lard, a dense fat that protects the kidneys, and render it with aromatics — bay, peppercorns, garlic," says Sparatta. "Then I strain and chill it, add more aromatics and whip it like butter. It's incredible, and it's instant gratification, which is unusual in charcuterie because so much of it takes a very long time."
Sparatta also tweaks flavor profiles to great success; kimchi coppa and Moroccan-spiced lomo are frequently in the lineup. And he embraces the fact that charcuterie is no longer pig-centric. Sumac, curry and fennel pollen lace his recent sausage made from camel, and working with antelope resulted in a rich, lean, red bresaola. "The process of getting a whole animal and using all of the parts is inspiring," he says. "I want to utilize everything — I don't want to waste it. And that makes it all the more fun to experiment."
The most fun, however, is being on the receiving end of those experiments — and not having to hunt down dinner with a spear.