Aging Gracefully: The Art and Science of Charcuterie

A photographer explores charcuterie

by Curtis Comeau

Assorted charcuterie at Meuwly’s
Assorted charcuterie at Meuwly’s

Charcuterie was a French word that gained popularity in the middle ages to refer to cured pork products that would last without the means of refrigeration.

However today, the word charcuterie refers to an artisanal way of preparing various meats. Although pork products still tend to dominate the cured meat realm, poultry, beef and seafood are becoming more prevalent.

One thing that has changed very little over time is the method of preparation. These are the processes of preservation—brining, fermentation, drying and ripening which combine to remove moisture from the meats, often done by using the world’s oldest preservative—salt, along with various spices, sugars and or smoking, along with time.

“How to best cure charcuterie meat is a complex and open-ended question because the variables are endless, but it all starts with a high quality meat selection.” says Meuwly’s charcuterie master Will Kotowicz.

Will Kotowicz with a side of pork
Will Kotowicz with a side of pork. Meuwly’s orders whole animals from a variety of local producers, including Bear and the Flower.

Meuwly’s brings in whole animals to create their products and Will just so happened to be getting a delivery of several massive fresh sides of pork the day I visited him for the story.

As Will moved around a fresh 110 lb side of pork, I ask him to pause and pose with one of the sides for a photo.

Will points out that, in addition to several fermentation and curing variables, the diet of the animal is an important consideration, often overlooked by many. “The diet of an animal will change the consistency of its fat. Depending on what the animal eats, they may produce a softer fat that can liquefy faster in the curing process. In this case we would use that pork in cured whole muscles like prosciutto, where soft fat is desirable. Other farms we work with produce meat with a firmer fat, which is perfect for dry-cured salami or smoked bacon.”

While the people at Meuwly’s truly are the masters when it comes to curing meat there are a small handful of chefs in the city who are making their own small batch charcuterie as well.


Rosario Caputo, executive chef/owner, Cibo Bistro with salumi
Rosario Caputo, executive chef/owner, Cibo Bistro with salumi

Cibo Bistro’s chef Rosario Caputo cures his own Italian salumi.

“For as long as I can remember curing meats has been done by my family,” says Rosario. “My grandfather built a garage out of concrete so it stayed cool and in spring he used to hang prosciutto and salumi right over his T-bird car.

“Obviously, I don’t cure my salumi in a garage but I certainly love making it with traditional methods for my guests.” This past July Rosario served a Mangalitsa prosciutto that he had been aging for three years. It sold out in one week.

Workshop Eatery’s chef de cuisine Nic Barron has started to do some small batch curing. “I want to explore the depth of flavour that can be achieved by using parts of an animal that are typically discarded in most kitchens, like the jowl and neck. I am also curing duck from Four Whistle Farms and beef from Lake Side Dairy.”

Edmonton-based photographer Curtis Comeau likes his pastrami with hot mustard.

Peter from Meuwly’s Talks Charcuterie
There are several different types of cured meats that fall under the broader term charcuterie. General catagories are based on the method of preparation and what part of the animal is being used The artisan processes we use are the old-fashioned processes which take time. The reward is complexity in flavour and appealing textures. The creativity comes from the overlap of different techniques, what additional flavourings may be used and whether or not the item is fermented. It takes time to build complex flavours.

Cured and air dried
Prosciutto such as Parma ham, also culatello, coppa, lomo/lonza (cured pork loin) guanciale (cheek or jowl). Bresaola is salted and air dried—always beef, usually eye of round. Speck is pork.

Brining is used for things like ham or a turkey breast, where you are changing the texture and retaining moisture while adding flavour by using aromatic spices or honey in the brine. Pastrami is a beef brisket which is brined, then smoked. We use grass-fed beef and Will has an amazing brine for pastrami.

Smoked items: hot and cold
There is overlap here, we might make coppa, then cold smoke and dry it three to four months. The buckboard bacon for example is cured with molasses added at that time, then hot smoked.

Cooked (cotto) salami
Cooked salami could be hot smoked or slow roasted, they are less expensive because they take less time to make. There are things like summer sausage, Krakowska, a Polish-style with lots of garlic and Thuringer sausage.

Fermentation of meat is a precise science involving replacing spoilage bacteria with good bacteria in an environment with the correct temperature and humidity. Will is a walking encyclopedia when it comes to fermentation. It’s a lot more complicated and a lot can go wrong. You have to calibrate a lot of different things to get complex flavour and the right texture. For example—the diameter makes a difference in the flavour; a long drying out period creates more complex flavours. A variety of sausages are fermented and they may be smoked as well.

It’s important for Meuwly’s not to be known strictly as an Italian (salumi) or German (wurst) or French (saucisson) house. Sometimes we put a spin on it, sometimes we stick to classics—Rosette de Lyon, hot soppressata, calabrese ferment. At any given time there will be three or four examples of this type of sausage in the case.

Whole animal butchery is really important to quality within the broader category of sausage. We cure whole muscles, then there is a lot of high-quality trim. You can’t just salt it and dry it out. We make things like mortadella, smokies and hot dogs which are emulsified to create the texture. It costs more to make to make mortadella than it does to make the honey ham. It’s far from mystery meat. We have 20 different of this type of sausage in rotation—bratwurst , chorizo, maple breakfast, Italian, andouille. We made one with Chinese black vinegar and charred green onion, like having dim sum.

Peter Keith, Meuwly’s, in the aging room
Peter Keith, Meuwly’s, in the aging room

Choosing Items for a Charcuterie Board?

“Think first about flavour, says Peter. “If you have a spicy soppressata you might want to have something a bit milder like garlic sausage to go with it. Also think about the texture and presentation on the board. Balance out the saltiness as well. If you have too many meats that are high in salt the board can be overwhelming. We are happy to help guide people through choosing items for their boards as well as well as suggest cheeses and accompaniments.”

Nic Barron, chef de cuisine at Workshop, holding a pancetta (pork belly)
Nic Barron, chef de cuisine at Workshop, holding a pancetta (pork belly)

The Extras

Recipes for delicious things to help make your charcuterie board shine.

Meuwly’s Sweet Pickle Brine

300 g white wine vinegar
175 g white wine (any variety will do)
500 g water
25 g white sugar
5 g salt (add more to taste if desired)
onions or shallots, hot peppers, fennel, anything with enough flavour to stand up to the sweetness

To make quick pickles: Combine all ingredients and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Pour over thinly-sliced vegetables and chill immediately. Store in the refrigerator and use within one week.

Meuwly’s Cranberry Mustard
One of our most popular items sold at Meuwly’s, simplified to make at home.
–Peter Keith

300 g yellow mustard seeds
100 g white wine (any variety will do)
200 g cider vinegar
125 g white sugar
25 g sea salt
150 g cranberry juice
30 g hot mustard powder
300 g dried cranberries, roughly chopped

Soak mustard seeds in wine and vinegar—cover tightly and let sit at room temperature for at least 24 hours, longer if possible. (We age ours for about a month.)

Place soaked seeds and liquid in a pot with sugar, salt, and cranberry juice. Bring to a simmer over medium heat. Once it is bubbling, reduce the heat to low and cook for about 20 minutes, stirring frequently.

Blend the mustard with a hand blender until seeds are crushed to your desired consistency. Gradually add the mustard powder, blending constantly (otherwise it will form lumps in your mustard.) Stir in cranberries and allow to cool fully before use. Store in the refrigerator. Makes about 1 litre.

Beet Tartare
The sweetness of the beets are a terrific foil for the bitterness of the endive. Adapted from a recipe in Saveur. This recipe is easily doubled.

2 med beets scrubbed
2 T olive oil
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 T balsamic vinegar
zest of 1 orange
endive leaves, Greek yogurt and cilantro leaves, for serving

Heat oven to 400°F. Place beets, olive oil, salt, and pepper in a 8-inch square baking dish and cover with foil; roast until tender, 1-1½ hours. (Or, use your preferred method to roast beets.) When cool enough to handle, peel and roughly chop. Transfer to a food processor; pulse until finely chopped, but not pureed. Place in a bowl and stir in vinegar, half the orange zest. Season to taste. Serve on endive leaves with a dollop of yogurt, cilantro leaves and remaining zest.

Herbed Celery and Bulgur Salad
The chewy bulgur, along with the crunch of the nuts and pomegranate seeds and the freshness of the herbs is a tasty accompaniment to preserved meats.

100 g bulgur wheat
½ bunch celery, separated, washed and trimmed, keep leaves
1 sm pink lady apple
juice 1 lemon
2 T olive oil
handful toasted hazelnuts, roughly chopped
1 red chile, deseeded and chopped
lg handful pomegranate seeds (optional)
celery leaves, chopped
handful parsley, chopped
handful mint leaves, chopped
handful fresh tarragon, chopped

Put the bulgur wheat in a large bowl and just cover with boiling water. Cover the bowl and leave for 30 minutes to absorb all the water.

Meanwhile, separate the sticks of celery and set the leaves aside. Very finely slice the celery and roughly chop the leaves. Cut the apple into fine matchsticks and toss in a little lemon juice.

Make a simple dressing: whisk the remaining lemon juice with the oil and season to taste. Go easy on the salt as the meats will provide lots of salty flavour on the board.

Gently fluff up the bulgur with a fork. Mix the sliced celery and apple through the bulgur, followed by the nuts, chile, pomegranate seeds and herbs. Drizzle over the dressing and toss everything together gently. Do not overmix. Place in a shallow bowl on the charcuterie board.

Keeps for one week. Leftovers make a very nice lunch.

Nic Barron (Workshop Eatery) holds a charcuterie board.
Nic Barron (Workshop Eatery) holds a charcuterie board.