|Charcuterie was the subject of a panel discussion at Taste Talks.|
CHICAGO – Taste Talks took place in Chicago’s Restaurant Row (Randolph Street) neighborhood in early October. Held a few weeks earlier in Brooklyn, NY, this three-day food festival explored the culinary cutting edge of a food-fanatical generation. Featuring more than 100 chefs, both established and up-and-comers, the event is dubbed the Future Food Expo.
At the Chicago event, culinary professionals participated in panel discussions, including one entitled “The Art of Salted and Dried Charcuterie.”
Missy Corey, head butcher and sous chef at Publican Quality Meats (PQM) located in Chicago’s meat-packing industry, 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,” she said. “I like to explore the classic flavor combinations of ethnic dishes and apply them to charcuterie.”
Evoking Old-World charm, PQM is a multi-faceted property. It’s a butcher shop, neighborhood café, bakery and gourmet market with a private dining room at night and a fully functioning catering operation. The business involves traditional whole animal butchery, with the company sourcing from small, local, organic farms whenever possible.
Making charcuterie is as much of an art as it is a science. “There are so many levels to making charcuterie, and so many steps along the way,” said Corey. “It’s a long process and you invest a great deal of time, and you don’t know until after it has aged if it is even any good.
“Aging the charcuterie is a balancing act where you must closely monitor the temperature and humidity of the aging room,” she said. “You check the product every day to see how it is progressing. Watching the mold is very important. White mold is safe and desirable. Black and red mold is bad.”
Once you cut into the properly aged charcuterie, you might discover off flavors or just that something is not right. “We need to trace it back to the animal and the farmer to determine if it is was something with the quality of the meat, possibly how the animal was slaughtered,” Corey added.
Another panelist, Chris Marchino, the executive chef with Spiaggia, honed his knowledge of charcuterie and Italian cuisine while working at restaurants throughout northern Italy, paying special attention to the nuances and traditions behind Italian cooking. “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.”
Ingredients and techniques are what Chicago’s West Loop Salumi is all about. Owner Gregory Laketek, a native of The Windy City, returned to his family’s homeland of Italy to study the craft of curing meats about a decade ago after being burnt out by his downtown consulting job. Upon returning and securing space for West Loop Salumi, it took about three years for Laketek to start selling hand-crafted charcuterie. Part of that time was spent doing paperwork to become the first Illinois USDA certified salumeria.
His efforts of making salumi using old-school techniques and ingredients imported directly from Italy are paying off. In addition to selling his artisanal meats in his small storefront on the weekends, his creations are on the menu of some of the finest restaurants in Chicago and featured at specialty retailers throughout the Chicagoland area.
One of his specialties is culatello, often referred to as the king of charcuterie. “The meat comes from the same part of the pig as prosciutto,” said Laketek. This is the large muscle mass in the rear leg. But culatello is a relatively small part of the whole leg, so if you use this muscle to make culatello, you cannot make prosciutto.
“Making culatello is labor-intensive. In fact, each salumi takes about an hour to prepare,” he said. Once the meat is deboned, massaged, shaped, tied and salted, it is encased in a pig bladder and aged for a minimum of 14 months. “You cannot rush the flavor,” he said.
Laketek confirmed that you must have patience when making charcuterie. “I work with my brother, and we just turn off our phones, blast the music and get lost in the process,” said Laketek. “The finished product is so rewarding.”