The elements which produce a well-cured bit of charcuterie are straightforward: really great meat, salt, and time. It sounds simple, and honestly it is, but the loving and obsessive details –the herb and spice choices, the long close scrutiny, the careful adjustments to temperature and humidity, the careful squeezes– these are what make the final product truly outstanding. That and sharing the delicious results with your closest friends, your mom, and maybe that fascinating and attractive and apparently single neighbor.
For November’s curing challenge I chose to make two types of charcuterie. The first was saucisse sec; it was my favorite sausage to buy, along with a baguette and some fruit, for impromptu outdoor lunches when I was a student in Paris, and later in Provence.
While researching recipes and lore about saucisse sec, I stumbled across a reference to a Swiss version of saucisse sec which included whole hazelnuts, and this was like catnip to a hazelnut-lover like me. I decided to make the plain traditional version, and a the hazelnut version as well.
My second choice was noix de jambon. I think all of us who were so fortunate to join Kate Hill and Dominique Chapolard at the Cochon & Charcuterie Workshops around the US this summer fell instantly in love with this diminutive cured whole-muscle –it was like a mini-prosciutto: sweet, porky, salty, and with a nice peppery kick. Noix de jambon is the perfect choice especially if you have a less than ideal curing environment, and if you want or need speedy results.
The noix de jambon is made from small pieces of a fresh ham, cut using seam butchery techniques into an elongated cylinder shape with tapered ends.
After two days in a salty cure, the pieces are brushed off, rolled and pressed into roughly ground pepper, and tied into neat compressed packages.
A short cold-smoking over apple wood and they are then hung for anywhere from ten days to three weeks, depending on the size of each noix and the temperature and humidity of your curing chamber.
I’m still in temporary digs, so once again I had to cobble together a curing environment; in this case I used a corner of my larder nearest a window which I keep a little open, with a humidifier positioned underneath, and a wooden frame with lots of hooks screwed into it. While I was setting that up, the noix hung quite happily on a broomstick. Much as I like to do.
While it was rather swiftly thrown together, the wooden hook rack-ma-doodle worked great, and it will be used many times in the future.
The curing environment was a real success, in that I was able to keep a relatively consistent temperature / humidity of 55°F / 67%, and after a week and a half I had the most delicious and silky slices of noix de jambon to enjoy, and enjoy them I did. I went through two of them by carrying them, wrapped in some butcher paper, in my knap-sack, along with my sharpest knife. At the slightest hint of interest I’d whip out my little ham-ling and slice paper-thin bits to share. Everyone loves the little jambons.
I love this ham to nibble just as it curls off my knife’s blade:
I’ve found all sorts of ways to use it as an ingredient in the kitchen. For instance, grated on a little plate of steaming fingerling potatoes tossed with butter, salt, and pepper.
And the salty porky goodness is a natural with any egg dish:
This is a beautiful, substantial, and warming fall dish: pasta with roasted winter squash, fried sage leaves, finely chopped noix de jambon, and shaved Pecorino Romano:
Finally, and possibly my favorite use for a bit of the peppery-salty goodness is a pureed vegetable and apple soup brightened and made swanky with sage brown-butter and julienned noix de jambon:
Amazing apple-celeriac-carrot-cabbage-onion soup with noix & sage brown butter drizzle
Serves 4 as main course
2 slices great bacon
6 small or medium potatoes roughly chopped (if peel is tired-looking, remove it)
1 very small or 1/2 a medium green cabbage
1 large onion
4 medium carrots
1 large or two small celery roots (aka celeriac)
1 bright apple-y apple
2 fat cloves garlic
5-6 cups water, or to cover
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 pinch white pepper
1 teaspoon salt
15-20 fresh basil leaves
scant 1/2 teaspoon dried marjoram (or 1/4 teaspoon oregano)
several springs fresh thyme, rose-petal thyme if you can get it
1 cup of whole milk
2-3 tablespoons unsalted butter
12 fresh large sage leaves
1/4 cup julienned noix de jambon (substitute prosciutto if you can’t make or find the noix de jambon)
Fry bacon slowly, in either a large heavy soup pot or in a very large heavy frying pan. When the bacon is cooked, set aside for tomorrow’s BLT or breakfast scramble.
In the tablespoon or so of bacon fat left in your pan or pot, add the veggies and apple, all roughly chopped in roughly half-inch sized pieces, along with the garlic, chopped fine.
Let all these sizzle in the bacon fat for 20 minutes or so, stirring a few times so that everything is lightly browned. Add water to just cover, along with the black pepper, white pepper, a big pinch of salt, and the herbs.
Simmer for 40 minutes until the veggies are tender but not falling-apart or mushy.
Once the soup is cool enough to handle safely, blitz it in batches in a blender or food processor until very smooth. Back in the pot again, and add milk until you achieve a creamy texture. Taste the soup and adjust seasoning if necessary, and warm gently.
Make a basic sage brown-butter sauce with 2 tablespoons of butter and eight or nine sage leaves, by sizzling the leaves in the butter until the butter is a warm brown. Atop each steaming bowl of soup drizzle a bit of the brown butter, portion out the sage leaves, and then sprinkle a little mound of the julienned jambon. A final pinch of black pepper, et voilà: an elegant cozy bowl to enjoy and share.
The next day I made the forcemeat for the saucisse sec. I used the basic recipe in Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn’s Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing, with a few tweaks and suggestions by a wonderful Swiss butcher named Claude-Alain Christen. He produces a whole slew of gorgeous charcuterie in his shop, Boucherie Centrale, in La Chaux-de-Fonds, just a few kilometers from the French border, and I can’t thank him enough for his generous advice.
I started by stuffing the hazelnut saucisse sec, and I quickly discovered that I would not be able to use my KitchenAid stuffer; the hazelnuts wouldn’t fit past/through the grinder screw, so I ended up stuffing around three pounds of sausage by hand. So fun.. not! Actually, it wasn’t so bad. I used the stuffing horn from the KitchenAid and my thumb, and it went fairly quickly.
I made two sizes of sausage; a slimmer one with sheep casing and a more standard one with the hog casings which I made from scratch last year. I did this because I wanted to make sure that the saucisse sec would be cured enough to eat and share and post about by December 1st. As it happens, they’re both cured enough to be delicious, but I suspect they’ll improve with a few more weeks of hanging, what I call a win-win sausage situation.
The plain traditional French saucisse sec was a breeze as I could use the KitchenAid, and the next three pounds were stuffed, linked, tied for hanging, weighed, and finished in less than an hour.
These beauties were hung, and each week I would take them down and weigh them.
It was exciting to watch their colour darken, and to witness the steady weight-loss. They looked more and more like the sausage I remembered from those Paris lunches!
I experienced some uncertainty along the way. For instance, these sausages were still pretty soft and squidgy even when their target percentage of weight loss had been reached. Common sense, which in my case is a result of having bought and eaten a fair amount of good cured sausage, dictated that I wait until the sausage felt right, and it was during the last few days that the majority of the saucisse reached this stage. Hurray!
I sliced into one of the larger hazelnut saucisse this morning. They were so beautiful, and so delicious that once again I was amazed that I had coaxed such deliciousness into being.
To have a mound of such beautiful sausages sitting before me, and with the first sunny day in weeks shining all saucily outside my kitchen window, my first thought was who could I share my sausages with, and Walter came instantly to mind.
Walter is a neighbor, and even more importantly, he is my gardening neighbor. We have adjacent plots, and we’re an odd-looking pair of old friends. Walter is 88, unobtrusively devout, and sometimes he shakes a lot, while I’m large, profane and one-legged. I scoot around on my ass planting garlic and beans, and Walter always has his tomatoes in the ground before anyone else, and we routinely exchange reports on our observations of the bastard woodchucks (my description, not his) whose offspring our garden’s tenderest bounty nourishes.
Before his wife, Loretta, passed away, he grew more flowers than vegetables, and every morning he was down picking a little nosegay of bright summery flowers to bring up to Miss Loretta. He is as steady, slow, and deliberate as I am noisy, energetic, and impulsive, and perhaps because we complement one another, kind of like basil is happy to grow near tomatoes, we get along really well. I just admire him so, and I hope that some of his warm steadiness rubs off on me over time.
We ate thin slices of the delicious noix de jambon, slices of the nutty saucisse, rose-thyme-scented cheese, tart pickles, one of my own good baguettes, an indulgence of some of my old favorite Danish cultured butter, and apples.
We drank some fizzy just off-dry Farnum Hill cider from the nearby Poverty Lane apple orchard, and finished with warm cups of milky Scottish tea sweetened slightly with maple syrup. It was all very, very good.
One last snapshot of the two of us. It was getting decidedly chilly as we packed up, and the sun approached the hilltops to the west. I was so glad to show Walter around this favorite stomping ground of mine; it’s so close to the town where we live that it only takes ten minutes to drive here, but you feel as if you’re at the top of the world, and all you can see are the soft grey-browns and grey-oranges and grey-violets of early winter. We took a meandering slow route homeward, with a particularly pleasing 4-wheel-drive jaunt up a long meadow. We hoped we’d spot a deer, but we both reckon that they’re all hiding as muzzle-loader season is right around the corner.