By Derrick Schneider | Photos by Melissa Schneider
Look around a neighborhood grocery store, or even a national supermarket chain, and you could believe that the business of curing meat is alive and well. Salami and ham are easy to find in the lunchmeat section or behind the sandwich counter.
But these commercial forms are almost always made with inferior meat and chemical additives that speed up the curing process. The traditional forms of cured meat—Italy’s salumi, France’s charcuterie, hams from America’s South—are dying out. Industrial production has pushed the ancient practices out of the market, and the generation that might have kept them alive often chooses a life away from hard physical labor, grinders, fat, and big slabs of meat. Who can blame them?
Flavor has suffered because of it. Compare commercial pepperoni (“sausage soaked in kerosene,” says a friend of mine) to the handcrafted version from Christopher Lee, chef and co-owner of Berkeley’s Eccolo restaurant. Lee’s rendition has a subtle flavor and succulent meatiness. His other cured meats—from salami to prosciutto—offer similar epiphanies.
Lee is one of a few East Bay chefs reviving traditional European charcuterie in the Bay Area, half a world away from its origins. It’s a risky move for a restaurateur. When Lee buys meat by the pound for these products, he knows that he’ll lose roughly 20-30 percent of that weight to evaporation. Add to that the value of time. Even a small salami hangs for three weeks in the restaurant’s walk-in before it can make any money. A prosciutto ham hangs for 15 months. Most restaurants understandably buy the charcuterie from someone else rather than make that investment.
But Lee, who worked at Chez Panisse for 17 years before starting Eccolo, has a passion for cured meats and the complex flavors found in the traditional forms. It began 25 years ago when he met salumi producers as he traveled through Tuscany. At the time, Lee didn’t know much about the topic: The techniques are usually passed from father to son, and little information was available to Lee in books he read here in the U.S. When renowned salumi maker Dario Cecchini invited Lee to work with him, Lee jumped at the chance. “At first, I was really interested in prosciutto,” says Lee in his quiet voice. “There are only three ingredients to worry about: pork, salt, and time.” But because you have to wait so long to see the results, it can be time-consuming to master the proportions and techniques. Lee says it took him three or four years to perfect his prosciutto, and now he considers it one of his specialties.
Even a straightforward salami benefits from Lee’s expertise. “The aging and spicing is fundamentally different among the salumi,” he says as we look at the meats hanging in his walk-in. “You don’t want to spice the larger salami too much. They develop complex flavors and you don’t want to overpower them.” Lee talks about the walk-in’s microclimate that he’s carefully established. Since he doesn’t use any additives, he needed an active population of the beneficial mold that ferments the meat as it cures. “We used to scrape the mold off of old salami to seed the population, but now we don’t have to,” says Lee, pointing out that the environment has become self-sustaining with a unique culture that adds its own character to his hams and salumi in the same way that different populations of yeast contribute subtle flavors to sourdough.
Lee’s long experience with cured meat has made him more a mentor than a student, and he teaches and advises the next generation of chefs. He trained his sous chef Lori Podraza when she took an interest in the process, and now she does the bulk of the cured meats for the restaurant.
Chef Taylor Boetticher from Berkeley’s Café Rouge came to ask for Lee’s advice about salumi, and Lee suggested Boetticher study with Cecchini in Tuscany. After Boetticher returned from his Italian apprenticeship, he and his wife Toponia started a charcuterie business in the East Bay called Fatted Calf. Their wares quickly gained a cult-like following among the area’s gourmet cognoscenti, their farmers’ market stalls clean out early, and Fatted Calf products appear on the menus of many Bay Area restaurants.
While Eccolo focuses on Italian salumi, Fatted Calf’s wares seem to be all over the map. “Mostly what we do is French and Italian,” says the busy chef as we talk. But then he mentions that Fatted Calf is known for its merguez, a traditional Moroccan sausage. At a farmer’s market on a recent Saturday, the stall was selling spicy Mexican-style chorizo as well as the drier Spanish form. The Boettichers also sell confits, rillettes (meat cooked slowly in fat and then shredded), terrines, and crepinettes (sausages wrapped in caul fat)
One might wonder if the diversity points to a lack of focus, but the array of possibilities clearly excites Boetticher. “One of the things that really fascinates me,” he says of charcuterie, “is it’s inherent in every culture of the world. There is an infinite number of flavor and texture combinations. It keeps inquisitive minds rolling.” Certainly it keeps Boetticher’s mind in motion. “I read a lot,” he says in a hurried tone, “ and every time I go somewhere, I’ll check out charcuterie in the area to increase my knowledge.” It’s clear that Fatted Calf is the product of a deep passion.
Lee and Boetticher timed their ventures well: Consumer interest in traditional charcuterie seems to be growing. “When we first started,” says Lee, “it was hard to get people interested in our meat and cheese plate.” Now Eccolo sees 30 to 40 orders a day for the antipasto platter that showcases the handcrafted products, and the staff makes 100 to 150 pounds of salami every few weeks. Boetticher recently added a farmer’s market stall at San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza to the one he maintains at the Berkeley Farmer’s Market, and he’s considering a third. Meanwhile, more restaurants continue to place orders for Fatted Calf charcuterie.
Though Lee suggests that some of this renewed interest might come from the recent infatuation with low-carb diets, he also notes that here in the Bay Area, “people are just more into food, and they’re more interested in traditional ingredients.”
I jokingly suggest to Lee that one day Italians might come here to learn their ancient craft. He smiles, but there’s a tinge of sadness in his expression. He sees the decline in traditional salami production in Italy, and it clearly upsets him. “There’s a reason these practices have persisted,” he says, “and I think it’s worth preserving.” ❖
Derrick Schneider is a food and wine writer, wine educator, and computer programmer. He has written for The Art of Eating, The Wine News, and Wine Review Online, and he writes the “In the Kitchen” column for SFist.com. His wine classes are always popular and well-regarded. His food and wine blog, An Obsession With Food,, has been praised in the mainstream press and it attracts several thousand regular readers each week. He lives in Oakland with his wife and two cats.
Melissa N. Schneider is a freelance photographer, custom woodworker, and jewelry maker based in Oakland.