Charcuterie

I first started out making my own bacon: in spite of the many amazing culinary experiences you can have here in Japan it is very difficult to obtain unsmoked, uncooked bacon as we have in England.  The sordid watery pale rectangular things for sale in the local supermarkets here is nothing like the well-browned, crispy loin or rashers that to me is real bacon.  After some trial and error over the years I have settled on a dry cure that answers pretty well, and now even my Japanese friends rave about it.  Then I was given a home smoker that my father was persuaded, by a silver-tongued salesman, to buy at Tokyu Hands, which of course he never used and I received in pristine condition.  Smoking bacon or meat, or fish that I have caught, was another new thing to get into.  Since then it has been a slippery slope, accelerated no doubt by an Australian friend who gave me a copy of the now-famous Charcuterie by Ruhlman & Polcyn.  That got me started into stuffing my own sausages – curiously, another thing you will struggle to find here in Japan beyond homogenous, textureless little hotdog-like things – and many of my family, friends and acquaintances have been pleasantly surprised by such things as Cumberland, merguez, or English breakfast sausages, and puddings both white and black.

The next natural stage of course was dry-cured meat.  Starting out with simple things like duck prosciutto, pork loin and pancetta, I then went on to fermented sausages.  My first attempt at a fermented sausage, a Spanish chorizo, was a disappointment, but curiously enough I did not give myself a dose of botulism or listeria or trichinosis to put me off and the next project, a Catalan fuet, was a great success.  I think I made a 2kg batch and they were all eaten in a week.  You will be amazed how many friends you suddenly find yourself having once you start making charcuterie – I have received among other things, fresh-caught flying fish, whole stewed snapper, double dishes of sushi, cases of beer and innumerable bottles of sake and shochu, in tribute.  If anything, I like to serve to guests or give most of my charcuterie away as it will spare your arteries and waist – and only a maniac would eat two kilograms of fermented sausage by himself.

Anyway, making charcuterie here in Japan presents a few extra challenges.  It is fairly easy to buy essentials like good salt and spices, but other supplies I tend to order online from the US or the UK (or have family/friends bring over things when they visit Japan).  For me the hardest part is getting hold of good quality pork.  The home kitchen culture is very different here in Japan and the best cuts of pork or beef are invariably sold for eating as yakiniku, sliced very thin and in small packs.  Whilst imported shoulder or pork belly from the US or Canada is perfectly good for bacon or fresh sausages (I buy mine in bulk very reasonably at Hanamasa), for fermented uncooked sausages you really do need the good stuff and in big pieces.  I use imported meat from Iberico breed pigs which I order online from a store on Rakuten.  The charcuterie you can make with their pork comes out superb (I also buy duck meat from them for dry curing and confit).  I have been researching organic pork farmers here in Japan and perversely, buying the better class of pork in bulk from Japanese farmers costs more than that of Iberico hogs frozen and transported to the far side of the world – so for the moment I use Spanish or French pork.  It is an ongoing quest to find a good local supplier, which I would rather use for obvious reasons, so we shall see.

The climate in Tokyo also poses a number of problems for dry curing and you will invariably need to build your own drying chamber.  Indoors the temperature can be well over 30ºC in summer and as low as 4ºC in winter, with a similarly drastic range in humidity.  I bought a drinks cooler/warmer for about 9000 yen which, without re-jigging the electrics at all, can be set at any temperature between 4 and 50ºC.  For fermented sausages I do the fermentation step and the drying all in the same chamber.  It is very easy to control the humidity as it comes with a corrugated plastic water-catcher tray at the bottom, which I fill with brine.  It has an in-built fan which keeps up a high level of air circulation inside the chamber.  The only drawback is that the cooler is small in size and I cannot do any meat or joint bigger than about 2kg.  One day I will upgrade my setup and build something bigger from a fridge.

Of all the things you need to start off with, I would highly recommend a large set of kitchen scales (up to 3kg), a good quality jeweller’s electronic scales (for accurately measuring small quantities such as pink salt or bacterial cultures) and good quality salt.  I use a brand called Mothia which is a Mediterranean sea-salt imported from Sicily; it costs 325 yen a kilogram at my local supermarket and I buy the grosso (coarse grain) version.  As you descend into the madness of charcuterie and find yourself embarking on increasingly ambitious projects, you will most certainly feel the need to buy certain specialist equipment: a meat grinder and a sausage stuffer will probably be first on your wish-list.  For both of these, I would recommend buying the best you can afford, and those made of stainless steel.  I bought both online from the US company The Sausagemaker, Inc.  Later on you will probably want an electric butcher’s meat slicer for cutting dry-cured whole muscle charcuterie, and also a home vacuum sealer.  I do not use a stand mixer as Ruhlman & Polcyn do, but I usually do not make batches larger than 5kg at a time, and for small amounts good old elbow grease is perfectly adequate.  The Sausagemaker, Inc. also stock many other essential items and sundries like casings, cultures, pH indicator paper and butcher’s twine; whilst they do not ship natural casings (or cultures, anymore) to Japan, they are a good source of hardware and books.  I cannot recommend enough buying and reading at least one good book before you attempt anything in the charcuterie line, and even better, two.  Ruhlman & Polcyn’s Charcuterie is considered a catholicon, but they are not infallible; I would also recommend The Art of Making Fermented Sausages by the Marianskis, and Rytek Kutas’ Great Sausage Recipes and Meat Curing. Ruhlman & Polcyn’s companion to Charcuterie, Salumi, is also another mainstay of my kitchen.  If you are getting started out I would definitely invest in Charcuterie and the Marianski book.  The latter is highly scientific – “Art” is a misnomer – and contains a great deal of very good information regarding food science, safety and hygiene.  Even though I have a background in biology I have learnt a great deal from the Marianski book: about water activity, the relationship of pH and temperature and meat spoiling, how to use bacterial cultures in fermented sausages and they have an expansive and interesting list of recipes too, including many fermented sausages that Ruhlman & Polcyn overlook (such as fuet, Thai pigskin, Turkish suçuk and Chinese dried sausage).

People are often put off by the safety aspect of charcuterie – very few foods have their own disease named after them (botulism) after all – but if you are scrupulous in following your recipe instructions and have a basic understanding of the scientific principles at work, it is likely you will die by a way other than poisoning yourself with your own salami, and can probably do charcuterie.  If you are not confident in your hygienic protocols, or are squeamish about eating pork that is not cooked through or have ever given your dinner guests food poisoning in the past, I would recommend you make fresh sausages, bacon, confit or hams and leave the dry-cured meats for another day.  However, most of it is really common sense about handling raw meat (there are very good reasons why we don’t eat pork sashimi) in a home kitchen, proper refrigeration, cleanliness of tools and work surfaces, and the correct measurement of the important things like salt and nitrites.  Another thing some people worry about is the use of nitrites and nitrates in charcuterie.  In my opinion, both varieties of pink salt are indispensable ingredients in curing meat and their negative effects on the person are grossly exaggerated.  This is not to say that both cannot be gravely poisonous – always measure it properly using an accurate balance, and never, ever exceed the amount stated in the recipe – but the amounts used in charcuterie are far lower than those found naturally in vegetables such as broccoli and spinach, and lower by about 2 – 4 orders of magnitude than those found in vegetable dietary supplements.  In fact, dietary nitrate and nitrite probably have health benefits rather than deleterious effects, as shown by the work of Dr. Nathan S. Bryan.  For those particularly interested in this side of things, I highly recommend reading the article by Hord, Tang & Bryan published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2009;90:1-10).  They measure nitrate and nitrite in a variety of foodstuffs including processed meat and vegetables, and discuss at great length the current state of knowledge and prevailing myths in food science regarding these substances.

Last I should mention some websites I frequent and where I buy my supplies from.  Joining an internet forum such as that at Sausagemaking.org can put you in touch with a great number of knowledgeable people.  There are also some serious home charcuterie makers out there too, such as Wrightfood who has excellent recipes and absolutely amazing photography too.   For those in Japan, good quality natural hog and sheep casings can be obtained online from Gourmet Meat Market on Rakuten (this is also where I buy my Spanish pork and French duck meat).  Both varieties of pink salt I buy online from The Sausagemaker, Inc which is also where I bought my meat grinder and sausage stuffer from (US electric plugs fit Japanese sockets as-is and most appliances are built for the same voltage).  Pork and beef in bulk for bacon or fresh sausages can be obtained very reasonably from the Hanamasa chain of stores – they have shops throughout the Kanto area.   When you are just starting out, ready-made seasoning mixes for fresh sausages can be good for your first few projects; I have used several from Sausagemaking.org and they have been very good (they also sell a black pudding mix).  I buy domestically produced pork back fat frozen from the store Nissin in Azabu (you can also buy many of the harder-to-find spices, herbs and other imported foods here).  The department store Yoshi-ike sells pork belly and loin, by weight, of the local Japanese hog breed Tokyo-X, though I have yet to try it.  IKEA sell big (6-litre) ziplock bags that can be hard to obtain at regular stores in Japan.  Most local pharmacies sell distilled water (for making up bacterial cultures) and alcohol (for cleansing work surfaces/equipment) but make sure of your purchase if you can’t read Japanese.

To see some of my stuff I make at home, please click on the Charcuterie tag.

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