ONE MAN'S MEAT

by Edward Wilkinson-Latham

The Toronto Standard

On a fresh, bright spring afternoon about two weeks ago, I stood in Justin Stephenson’s basement, a glass of heady red in hand, staring at more than twenty irregularly-shaped hunks of air-dried meat. It was cold, of course, and the meat was cocooned in cheesecloth. This was not an immediately appetizing sight, more akin to a viewing of inadequately dressed severed limbs than a supposedly fine meat stock. Stephenson gently unwrapped a brick-sized chunk. Its dark burgundy, even black, tones were offset by a shiny yellow rind, puckered at the edges; the meat was as improbably luminous as a Renaissance still life in oils. If Stephenson told me it was penguin, I would probably have believed him. In fact, it was organically raised Berkshire pork. I was encouraged to take an up-close-and-personal sniff. An intimate odour of Moroccan leather sandals, fennel, and unwashed body parts filled my frontal lobe.

Back in the kitchen some time later, Stephenson took a deathly sharp Japanese sashimi knife and shaved off pieces of pork so thin you could watch pornography through them. My wine glass was exchanged for a generous measure of Manzanilla sherry and a toothpick. With the first taste of meat, my saliva glands uncontrollably wept, and with every suck and chew, the salty herb-infused flavour of air-cured swine mounted in intensity. The sherry is a perfect complement, like the sun to an Andalusian landscape.

“It makes a pork chop taste like wet cardboard, doesn’t it?” Stephenson said.

Part of a percolating trend across North America, Toronto’s celebrity chefs and up-market restaurateurs have been laying out charcuterie boards for some time now, complete with selections of duck, wild boar, heritage pig breeds, horse and bison. This has given the enthusiastic carnivore a taste of the fine meats usually found hanging from the ceilings in tapas bars across Spain. But it’s pricey too. And why settle for a few measly tranches on your plate for twenty dollars, when you can have a whole leg? A growing number of people, therefore, are curing and smoking their own meat and finding the results are better than anything found in a grocer or high-end eatery. There are classes and blogs (www.curedmeats.blogspot.com is just one), and many curious meat hoarders have found expert guidance in books like Michael Ruhlman’s instruction manual, Charcuterie.

Stephenson and his fellow meat-loving pal, Andreas Duess, both in their early 40s, have been successfully experimenting with pieces of animal for over a year. A couple days after my visit to Stephenson’s home meat locker, I’m in Duess’s Parkdale garden where the two men (who normally work in the somewhat less bloody creative media world) are sharpening a selection of blades—from carbon steel, bayonet-length dissectors to Chinese razor cleavers that could sever an ankle in a single blow. The sound of ringing metal raises hairs, though there is none remaining on the two whole Berkshires, which lie draped over the patio furniture like rugs, completely shaven, gutted and hollowed. Stephenson and Duess grab one of the carcasses, throw it down on the patio table, and give it a slap. With focused precision, they quickly divide it into square pieces roughly twelve inches across and stack them like phone directories. The head and ears will make interesting fare. They put a beer in my hand, move the other pig so I can sit down, and proceed to give me a quick science lesson. (Stephenson and Duess have actually produced a series of instructional videos to inspire others.) In order to start the process of preservation, all of the raw meat must be first salted. While smoke creates an antimicrobial and antioxidant environment, salt or brine is required to eradicate any bacteria, leach water from the meat, and evenly distribute spices and seasoning. Placed in Ziploc bags and refrigerated, the meat will be ready to smoke or air-dry in a week. In a cooking show Here’s-One-I-Prepared-Earlier-style moment, Duess produces eight large pieces of pork belly that had been marinating in Chinese five-spice powder the previous week. The meat is debagged, patted dry with paper towel, and threaded with string using a butcher’s needle so it may hang in a smoker from anywhere between three and five days.

Over a sample of truly excellent fried maple smoked bacon, I ask Stephenson and Duess what got them both hooked on curing and smoking their own meat. “It’s the suspicion that you can get a better product by doing it yourself,” Duess says. “Chances are you’re correct.” Stephenson harmonizes with his views on the horrors of commercial products: “Commercial bacon is, of course, largely not organic, injected with hormones and water, and then actually sprayed with smoky flavouring. What we’re making is real heritage style bacon. It has a completely different taste.”

Hot smoking can take mere hours on a BBQ converted with a metal insert easily obtained online. Cold smoking, however, is a culinary art, a kind of preservation that requires patient devotion and delivers a uniquely rich, smoky taste. Duess’s cold smoker sits in the corner of the garden. It’s the size of a small wardrobe and made from a pine interior with a cedar exterior, complete with a shingled roof. A cylindrical metal wood burner, the approximate size of a Bodum, is attached to the exterior with a length of flexible aluminum tube that distributes the cold smoke through both chambers at a temperature of less than 85°F (30°C). In comparison, hot smoking takes place between 120° and 180°F (50° and 82°C).

Duess admits the cold smoker took some fiddling to get right. “That’s half the adventure,” he says. “I really wanted to build my own rather than buy one. You can make one out of many things, from a cardboard box to metal garbage can. An old oak wardrobe would be perfect. The trick is, always go bigger than you think.” Meat can be hung in a cold room for months, the flavours maturing over time, but beware of mould and live by these important rules: If it’s white, it can be wiped (with vinegar). If it’s black, to the garbage sack.

As well as smoking organic pork and beef, Stephenson and Duess have tried venison and duck, brought back from Stephenson’s hunting weekends up north. Fellow brother of the brine, Gwillym Williams, obtains his meat the same way. After retiring from a successful career as a classical musician — he played for the National Ballet, Stratford Festival, Esprit Orchestra and York Winds — he took classes at the George Brown chef school. Keen to know where his meat came from, and with a fondness for goose prosciutto, Williams simply went out and shot it himself. He doesn’t hunt migratory tundra geese, but the largest variety called Giant Canadas, a nuisance to public parks but wild and plentiful in fields around Long Point and Port Rowan, a waterfowl-hunting Mecca on Lake Erie.

“It was a revelation to me when I started curing that meat is clean,” Williams says in the kitchen of his Junction home. “It’s the surface contamination that starts the process of decomposition. So, by leaving the skin on, the meat remains clean. Wild game is remarkably lean, so the skin also preserves whatever thin layer of fat there might be.”

Williams’ method is to carefully remove the breast from the bone, swabbing it with brandy, a spirit he has found suitable for his European recipes. More neutral spirits, he explains, would suit Asian flavours. Shot pellets can carry bacteria deep into the goose’s tissue so, after removing the shot with tweezers, Williams cleans the holes out with a salt solution. He then salts the goose breast for another twelve hours. “My method of curing,” Wiliams says modestly, “is taken entirely from Jacques Pepin’s Complete Techniques, which gives instructions for curing an entire leg of pork. I simply adapted the method to the much smaller piece of goose meat and varied the flavourings according to my own taste.”

He demonstrates by laying out a batch of salted breasts and massaging the meat with garlic, pepper mignonettes and soy sauce, before dusting with pulverized Szechuan pepper and star-of-anise. Another batch is painted with rye and rolled in pine needles. Each piece is then lovingly wrapped in cheesecloth and carried to his garden shed where it will hang for a couple of weeks. “Any longer than two weeks and it’ll be like a hockey puck,” he says, having overestimated a few pieces in his time. “But goose jerky is pretty good for a camping trip.” He cuts off a piece and invites me to taste. It’s the color of tuna sushi, its tone even throughout. It’s like nothing else I’ve tasted, delicate with a faint musty perfume, both salty and sweet. He offers me some cured goose breast, but I save it until the following week, when I’m out hunting with Stephenson. After a few hours in our blind with not so much as a quack, I begin to ponder other creatures that might be rather tasty after a cold smoke cure.

“Squirrel?” I whisper.

“They call it tree-rabbit on some menus,” Stephenson replies, looking up for ducks.

“Probably very tasty.”

“Elvis liked them.”

“Well, exactly.”