A Beautiful Messy Business: Notes from the NVICA charcuterie workshop

Shawn Galway, from eatdrinkbreathe.com

“My father told me once that there are three things in life that we must do: Work hard, be honest and make beautiful things.”

With these words John van der Lieck plunged his hands into a dark, shimmering paste of pork liver to the reverent, nodding ascent of a roomful of chefs.

We were in the spacious commercial kitchen of North Island College’s Culinary Arts department for the NVICA Charcuterie Workshop, a two-day journey through the world of salting, curing, pressing and preserving meats. Around 20 of us, all foodservice professionals, gathered around van der Lieck as he guided us from whole hog to finished product and every critical step in between.

Van der Lieck is as close to a charcuterie master as one gets (although he’d be the first to shake his head and say there’s no end to the learning) and had driven up from the Comox Valley to show us the ropes. He was the founder of Oyama Sausage Co. in Vancouver and had spent the bulk of his career working on Granville Island producing world-class charcuterie for Vancouver’s bustling foodservice industry and discerning foodies. Aside from being a skilled craftsman, he’s a joy to listen to, recounting proverbs, favourite recipes and anecdotes from his long career with the easy flow of a master storyteller.

Deconstruction

The hog was from Lentelus Farm in Courtenay, a small town halfway up Vancouver Island, and came in two whole sides. When chefs Xavier Bauby and Ronald St. Pierre trotted them out, an audible sigh went up from the assembled cooks indicating that I wasn’t the only one who hadn’t worked with such an impressive and daunting chunk of meat.

It was no problem for van der Lieck. Armed with only a hacksaw and a thin boning knife, he set about taking apart the beast, and within an hour one whole side had been portioned into the kind of primal cuts most of us would recognize. Each piece was described in detail and assigned to a particular pile depending on what type of fat or meat they contained and what sort of beautiful things could be made of them.

As van der Lieck reiterated many times during the two days: “The key to good charcuterie is determining what you want. Do you need the meat to last? Do you need it cooked right away? What kind of flavour are you looking for? How much space do you have? Once you know, you can make whatever fits the criteria instead of working backwards and wasting meat.”

After settling in, everyone broke into groups and started cutting, rendering, scraping or, in my case, fishing eyeballs out from the head. Soon piles of glistening pork fat were sorted into groups depending on the concentration of pure fat-to-meat. Anything that wasn’t going to be salted, brined or rendered was added to an enormous, rolling, gelatine-filled stock that would act as both a flavourful medium for the brine and as a binding agent for our terrines.

That’s right around when van der Lieck brought out the offal. The liver was cleaned, heavily seasoned, ground to a mousse-like texture then wrapped in caul fat and baked. Tongue and pieces of meat plucked from the head were mixed with chopped pickles, salt, sugar and vinegar, encased in jellied stock, then chilled to make headcheese.

“Of course, if you call it headcheese, no one will buy it!” laughed van der Lieck. “So we’ll call it têtes de cochon or what have you. That is why French cuisine is eternal! They have such wonderful names for things!”

Whole Hog

Once the brined pieces went into the smoker and the pates and terrines were squared away, the whole crew surrounded van der Lieck in the cold kitchen for a sausage making party. He fired up a big industrial grinder and a thermo mixer (imagine a big, temperature-controlled Vitamix) and fed through batches of pork, fat, salt and spices in varying quantities to produce five unique sausage fillings.

Chef-turned-farmer Brian McCormick from Clever Crow Farms out in Black Creek, B.C., brought in a hand crank sausage stuffer and everyone took a turn feeding the hopper and guiding long tubes of ground meat into casings and then twirling them to create sausage links. This last step took a bit of finesse, but after a couple of tries under the guidance of the maestro even I got the hang of it.

This was the heart of the whole two-day affair. Everyone got their hands into a bowl of ground pork and spices or twirled a crank while someone else fed the stuffer. Instead of lone wolf chefs from desperate worlds babysitting pots at various ends of the kitchen, everyone was together in this beautiful messy business. Once all the casings were filled and pricked, it was time to eat!

Over on NIC’s vast line a couple of pans were fired up and the freshly made sausages started to sizzle and pop, terrines were un-molded and pates were carefully sliced and arranged onto platters. We all sat down in the North Island College Dining Room and tucked into the beautiful things we had made from such inelegant hunks of pig — crostini and napkins were offered, but in my enthusiasm, I mostly used my hands.

Cured Feast

Both terrines were spectacular. The liver was subdued and perfectly accentuated with spices so that there was no organy aftertaste. The peppercorns were a perfect fit and the caul fat provided both a structure for the terrine, a crisp lid to eat and added fat to the whole affair. The head cheese was equally great and had a variety of really exciting textures, including my personal favourite, the tongue!

Speaking of favourites, I’m a sucker for a farmer-style sausage, so the Toulouse-style and chef Brian’s “special” sausages were admittedly my favourites of the whole workshop! Both were rough and herbal with just a hint of lemon, rosemary and just enough of that distinctive offal twang to make things interesting.

Both the paprika-spiked chorizo and Morteau sausages were exceptional and more aggressively spiced than I imagined when I was mixing up the filling. The smoke added another layer of BBQ-cookout-Louisiana-hot-sauce-hot-summer-tarmac flavour to them both and the char from the frying pan added a beautiful crust.

Finally, the boudin blanc was a combination of bright white pork fat, a bit of chicken, bread soaked in cream, lemon and herbs. The colour was (as you’d expect) pale as a ghost and full of subtle, bright flavours and the texture was mousse-like in its smoothness. It was a perfect foil for all of the other more assertive, fatty sausages and gave our meat board a dash of class.

And that was it. After we’d gorged on our handiwork and fed the dishes through the washer, we got a last chance to ask van der Lieck questions and then mill around exchanging emails with all the great new friends we’d made. Everyone couldn’t wait to bust out the grinder at their work and start cranking out house-made charcuterie!

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