The Art and Economics of Charcuterie Part 6

by Francoise Villeneuve
Antoinette Bruno Nils Arrington
December 2010

DIY charcuterie operations have exploded over the past five years. Sure, charcuterie has been around for years, but now the demand for house-made terrines, ballotines, pâtés, brawns, all manner of cured or smoked meats has reached fever pitch. What’s more, it’s not limited to one area of the country. Over the years we’ve seen in-house charcuterie programs in Napa from Chefs John Stewart and Duskie Estes at Bovolo and Zazu, and at Cochon and Delmonico in New Orleans, and Chef Adam Stevenson of Earth & Ocean in Seattle, to name just a handful. Chefs all over the country are staging and traveling to pick up Italian, Swiss, and French techniques for charcuterie! But what’s even more exciting is that this surge in popularity is spawning some serious experimentation, whether it’s in tiny 30-seat restaurants or larger multi-unit operations across the country.

With restaurants big and small in mind, we are continuing our charcuterie series to take a good hard look at how different sorts of chefs, using different techniques for their charcuterie recipes, all try to balance the bottom line with a love of charcuterie. Chef James Tracey and Craft’s revolving charcuterie program is the fifth in this series. The sixth in the series follows Chef de Cuisine Michael Fiorello of Mercat a la Planxa and his approachable selection of charcuterie, including lamb bacon.

Part 6: Bacon 2.0

Welcome to bacon 2.0. Chef de Cuisine Michael Fiorello takes a standard dry cure of sugar and salt that chefs have been applying to pork for years, fills it with the flavors of Cataluña (thyme, rosemary, black pepper, allspice, cinnamon, fennel seeds, star anise, and hickory), and applies it to lamb belly. Although Fiorello calls lamb bacon "a great alternative for those who don't eat pork," it has tremendous potential for pairings that the sweeter, fattier pork don’t always complement. It really represents the possibilities of a dry cure, but more importantly, of a creative approach to a traditional craft—charcuterie.

The spices for the dry cure are toasted in a sauté pan to release the oils before coarsely grinding them. A 3:1 ratio of salt to sugar and a little tinted curing mix make up the remainder of the cure. Lamb belly is much smaller than pork belly, but the method is quite similar to making regular bacon, minus the smoke. Dry cure plus belly plus 48 hours equals savory-sweet nirvana. Fiorello uses cheesecloth to hold the cure directly against the meat so no excess cure is used, which cuts the food cost substantially. By sitting the cheesecloth-wrapped lamb belly in a perforated pan, any excess liquid drains off into the hotel pan beneath.

Fiorello is an avid charcuterie fiend, but his favorite food-cost winner is emulsified sausage. Meat, fat, milk powder, and casing are all inexpensive but deliver in a serious way because they contribute to the dozen or so charcuterie items that grace the menu at Mercat a la Planxa. While Chicago is always thought of as a forward-thinking culinary hotspot, the nasty bits aren’t “ultimately what sell at the restaurant,” says Fiorello. So how does he make charcuterie sell? Sliced hams and cured sausages sell the best, so he makes sure to offer a substantial amount of those, plus the lardo, which is basically cured fat. “It’s cheap, but it transforms into something valuable and delicious when it is cured and aged,” he says. Fiorello balances cuts within different price ranges for a better overall bottom line, or as he puts it, “I’ll use anything that I think I can cure, grind, and stuff.”