Balancing science and art

by Bernard Shire
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A leg of acorn prosciutto is sliced
Artisanal dry-cured meats are a growing and thriving niche market poised to go mainstream.

For many centuries, dry curing of meat has been utilized as a preservation method that delivered the bonus benefits of intensifying and enhancing the flavor and the texture of meat. As a means of preserving dry curing is a useful science. But it is more than that – it is an art. Many of the world’s countries and cultures have developed techniques and recipes for making and crafting dry sausages and dry meats.

Today, this niche is growing in popularity. An increasing number of consumers and customers today are seeking locally made, high-quality, natural and artisan-crafted ingredients and products. This is especially true in dry-aged and cured meat products. A long tradition in making such products comes from Italy, where meats like salami, various kinds of sausages, prosciutto, cappicola, pastrami, mortadella, pancetta and other products have a long history, and have found a new popularity and demand today.

And despite the fact that traditional, time-tested products are a very important part of dry-aged meat products, there is still an emphasis on the development of new products in order to appeal to the growing demand among “foodies” for charcuterie-style meats.

Columbus Foods President and CEO Tim Fallon says the popularity of dry-aged artisan meat has been growing tremendously, especially among consumers and customers who are on the lookout for premium meat products.

“The entire salumi category is one of the fastest-growing deli-meat categories with high single-digit growth year after year. Despite the recent higher prices for pork, the category still grew in unit volume,” he says. Fallon adds that even in the dry-aged meat segment, new-style meat products are being developed.

Columbus Foods herb salame
Customers are more than willing to pay premium prices for artisanal dry-cured meats.

“We have base formulations,” he adds. “We then utilize different spice blends to develop products that are appealing to consumers who like these products. Two of our outstanding offerings are our cacciatores, one with porcini mushroom and the other with actual black truffles.”

During a panel discussion among culinary professionals at the “Taste Talks” food festival this past fall in Chicago, “The Art of Salted and Dried Charcuterie” was the topic. Missy Corey, head butcher and sous chef at Chicago’s Publican Quality Meats (PQM), explained how she keeps the company’s charcuterie exciting. “We started with an Italian focus, but quickly learned that charcuterie renders itself to all types of ethnic flavors.”

Then there’s the question of how to market these traditional products like dry-aged meats to “foodies” whose tastes may change frequently. Fallon says Columbus does that by taking unique approaches to processing. “We use whole muscle, no water injection, and we deliver the highest grams of protein per serving versus the competition. Consumers can tell the difference in taste and texture,” he adds. He says the company’s unique approach to processing results in best-tasting deli meats with a great appeal to people who like dry-aged and cured meats. 

Another panelist, Chris Marchino, executive chef at Chicago’s Spiaggia, honed his knowledge of charcuterie and Italian cuisine while working at restaurants throughout northern Italy. “It’s increasingly challenging to distinguish yourself in this business,” he said. “What sets one apart is the sourcing of the best ingredients and using traditional techniques.”

Herb and Kathy Eckhouse lived in Italy for several years in the late 1980s, experiencing the tastes and nuances of Italian meats and specifically prosciutto before founding La Quercia, an Iowa-based processing firm specializing in dry-cured meats in 2000. Timing is everything, as the Eckhouses will attest, as their business is “doing well” with a growing customer base more than willing to pay a premium for La Quercia’s line of premium, dry-aged products. And there’s no shortage of raw materials in the pork-rich state. “When we returned to the US, we kept thinking of making good food from the bounty of Iowa,” Kathy Eckhouse says. “Using pork and making prosciutto just seemed to make sense, so that eventually became our goal.”

What was inspired by Italian tradition but founded in the heart of America’s hog hotbed is yet another testament to the growing and thriving niche that is based on artisan expertise and a quality-at-all-cost approach that lures the trendy food lovers throughout the country.

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