Making the Old New
A few years ago it began to appear on menus across town. It most often snuck into the appetizer section, though often it had its own little section specially created for it. The new menu darling I mean is charcuterie, and if you're like me, you have almost no idea what that means.
The word is originally from the French for "cooked meat," and though it came to mean a pork butcher in France, in menu terms it means any kind of preserved meat, or anything cured, smoked, salted or made into sausage. Basically, charcuterie is the product of mankind trying to protect delicious meat from decay, which doesn't explain why it ended up on everyone's menu. And it really is everywhere. Just off the top of my head I know you can find it at Bluegrass, Metropolitan, Vino Rosina, Alewife, Clementine, Cinghiale, Woodberry kitchen, Victoria Gastro Pub, B & O, Grand Cru, and almost every tapas restaurant in town.
Charcuterie in the broad sense is as familiar to Americans as ham and baloney, but the refined versions remain strange to most Americans. With the invention of refrigeration, fast food, and nation-spanning supply chains, spending hours preserving duck as confit really didn't make much sense, and so charcuterie disappeared.
This is a pity, as made clear in Charcuterie, by Mark Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn, from which I've gotten most of what I know about the subject. I have heard that The Art of Garde Manger, by Frederic Sonnenschmidt, is the definitive text on the subject, but Charcuterie is much easier to find and more than enough info for a newbie to the world of charcuterie.
What's funny is that charcuterie is now considered fine dining, because according to Charcuterie, pâtés and terrines are methods of turning meat scraps into food again—not unlike scrapple.
Yes, the Eastern Shore staple, much looked down upon by... well, almost everyone, falls under the broad definition of charcuterie. The internet tells me (no, there's no recipe for scrapple in Charcuterie, nor my other cook books) that scrapple is made with cornmeal or flour added to a boiling soup-like mixture of animal stuff to create a mush. It's just one of many old recipes for getting the most out of an animal.
So if the techniques of preserving meats are so old and common, why the sudden popularity on menus?
The answer is the same reason we still use old preservation methods when we could just freeze everything: taste. Charcuterie is awesome. Pâtés and terrines are deliciously creamy, almost like butter made of meat, and can be flavored so differently that there's no reason not to try one everywhere to see what particular flavors you might discover. Cured meats like prosciutto are a completely different sensation. They have a powerfully concentrated flavor, with a meaty texture made simple-to-eat by the thin slices usually found on charcuterie plates. My favorite, however, are the sausages.
Sausages come in as many varieties as there are creative minds in kitchens, from salty, to sweet, to fiery. Even better, the texture of the fine sausages found on charcuterie plates vary from buttery soft or chewy, and smooth to chunky, giving you a chance to appreciate the amount of variety that cooking can bring to the raw ingredients we call food.
We no longer make charcuterie in the home, but that's OK. We can do our preserving with refrigerators and vacuum packs there and enjoy the amazing flavors of charcuterie at area restaurants, because thankfully, charcuterie is now easy to find.
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