My bacon has a first name. Actually, two.

I love this time of year. This is the time of year that things like this start showing up in my mailbox. 

We got our pigs a little early this year - they were born in early February, and we picked them up right around the first of March. So these little bacon seeds got to experience snow (it being Maine, which is about 3 miles from the North Pole, and snow being a thing that we can experience up through and sometimes into May.) 

Oh how quickly they grow up.  This year's pair of pigs were a Tamworth-Yorkshire cross. They were a nice, long 'bacon' pig.  

I'm not making that up. There's math behind that truth. Long pigs == long belly. And pork belly is where they keep the bacon.  This differs from our previous pigs, both sets of which were Gloucester Old Spots, which had a richer, thicker layer of fat, and were 'ham' pigs. 

I mean, these also have hams. Just a little smaller by comparison. 

In the end, I didn't really like these pigs. Not like the Gloucesters, which I'd gladly get again. 

Beth (named by my 14 year old daughter who named her after the girl that dies in 'Little Women'), and Apples were constant rooters, and a fairly destructive. They tore the sill out of the back of the barn, pushed random boards in the walls until they cracked and broke, and pushed I'm not sure how many holes through their fencing. The never actually tried to escape, which makes them simultaneously a) idiots and b) far less work than our last set. But I kept having to patch the fence and generally grumble a lot more than I did in the past. 

When I looked over at them a couple of weeks ago and sized up their hams by eye, I figured it was time enough for them to head to slaughter. It was not a tearful parting.  

We had fed these on the same mix of peanuts and pig feed as we raised the previous sets. the peanuts are my American stand in for the acorns that the deliciously famous black Iberian pigs find in the oak scrub of northern Spain.  

Another nice surprise about moving to Maine is that the peanuts in the shell are about a third cheaper than they are in the feed store in Massachusetts. I have no idea why that might be - I am left to assume that the Massachusetts state legislature has placed a stiff import tax on underground legumes and anything that goes by the common name of 'Goober'. Which is probably also why the Andy Griffith show never took off with the Boston crowd. 

I called my buddy down the road and asked if he'd help me schelp the pigs to the slaughterhouse again this year. Actually, I was really hoping his wife would help. Joanna grew up on a local farm, and with their kids, she's a fixture at the local fairs, prepping and herding the animals for show. When she came, she pointed at Joe and myself and showed us where we could stand so we'd be more or less out of the way while she picked up each pig and threw them into the trailer with a gently frightening, backhanded toss of one wrist. 

Or something like that. I've watched her in action twice now, and I still have no idea how that tiny little blonde woman gets them in there but they were loaded and ready to go in about 15 minutes. 

I tried a new slaughterhouse this year - a local one just down the road in Windham, Maine. It was a self-service drop off on a Sunday morning: back the trailer up, pick a pen and settle them in. There's no staff around, you just fill out a form and fill out the instructions with a contact phone number. (Joanna showed me where the forms were. Of course). 

The pigs were pretty much a perfect weight when we took them in - 241 and 242 pounds respectively. That's at the top end of where you want them, more or less. Though there were a pair of pigs in the pen next to these that must have been approaching 500 lbs. Not that I'm fat shaming. But anything north of 250, and you're pretty much just raising lard. 

 I was a little nervous about trying a new slaughter house. Most slaughterhouses will also butcher and package the meat - many (including this one) even offer smoking and curing. But the ones up here have a fairly limited selection of cutting skills. 

I spoke to the owner when I called to schedule the slaughter and asked if he'd be able to cut prosciutto, and back bacon, and a few other traditional cuts. "Sure. We've done that a couple of times." 

I mean, cutting a prosciutto isn't hard. It's actually easier than cutting, boning and trimming out your typical ham. Cut the leg off the body. That's pretty much it.  So I figured I'd give it a try. 

So I crossed out everything on the standard form (which pretty much consisted of "how thick do you like your pork chops" (no pork chops) and "would you like us to go ahead use Pappy's special cure on your sausage? (No). ) and wrote a paragraph or two of instructions on the back of the page. Which pretty much read like this: 

"Hi. I make prosciuttos. DON'T CUT THE FEET OFF. Please cut the hip fairly high, because I will cure the whole leg. DON'T CUT THE FEET OFF. These will be things of beauty, which I will tenderly rub with salt and say nice things to. DON'T CUT THE FEET OFF. They will be hung in my basement and brought out to serve the most beloved of guests, to a kind of wordless, heavenly aria sung by small children garbed in white hired specially for the occasion. DON'T CUT THE FEET OFF. It will take two years, but that's ok. Because I believe in long term relationships. And also cuddles. DID I MENTION THE FEET? NOT OFF."

Guess what? They cut the feet off. 

The rest of the meat was cut pretty well. The butcher was good, it's just that not a lot of people want to cure a whole ham. So they just instinctively reached for the feet chopper. And once they're off, there's no putting them back on. 

I ended up with a lot of trim, and the butts were cut down a bit smaller than I would have liked (can't get coppa out of this). But the loins were handled perfectly - kept whole, with a bit of belly attached. Perfect for making English bacon. And the freezers are now crammed full in a sort of three dimensional meat jigsaw puzzle. And the meat overall looked lovely. Farm to table takes on a whole new meaning of delicious when the farm in question is your backyard. 

A couple of days later, we had some guests over (for the Color Wars party), and I smoked up a shoulder to serve. Which was mouth watering. 

"Hey kids! This pig was alive in our backyard a couple of days ago! Would you like a bit more Beth on your sandwich?" 

I have learned a couple of things about early pigs. Mostly: early pigs get slaughtered early.

It turns out - there's a reason why pig slaughtering season is in the fall, when the air is cool. Because heat does bad things to pork, even with 40 pounds of salt spread over it. 

The (footless) prosciuttos (above) went into my prosciutto salting boxes on a nice bed of kosher salt, and were liberally rubbed, coated and massaged with several dozen pounds of salt. And also: salt. 

There are three things you can lose a prosciutto to, more or less. Bacteria, pests/insects, or fungus. Any or all is bad. I'd been working on my turning what used to be a dairy room in the basement into a curing room. The stone walls are still whitewashed, and I'd gotten the humidity pretty stable, hovering between 40-55%.  I have been charting it out via a SmartThings monitor that would text my phone when it went outside of the range.  Basically, I am turning my house into SkyNet in the quest for a good piece of prosciutto. 

I visited my prosciutto often. I covered the boxes with a couple of layers of cheesecloth to ensure nothing would disturb them. I watched the humidity closely, and went to sleep each night feeling better that my basement was full of lovely pork. 

Until my basement began to smell.

The cut feet not only made the potential-prosciutto harder to hang (you can cut a slit right behind the ankle tendon that makes a perfect place to thread a rope), and less lovely to present, but it doesn't actually affect the meat. So I went ahead with the cure. There's a formula about how long to salt the ham before hanging, based on weight and thickness, and how many letters from Leondardo da Vinci's name also appear in your name. But it is measured in weeks. The next step is to bag it (to keep the flies off for a while longer) and hang it to air dry until your 4th grader is ready for 6th grade. 

Unfortunately, because our pigs were ready for slaughter so early in the year, I was starting the cure during the hottest week of the summer. It was in the 90's pretty much every day. And while the basement of this old farmhouse tends to stay a little cooler than that, it is not hermetically sealed. Or air conditioned. And that extra cut at the top of the leg with the bone sticking out provided for a difficult to seal entrance for more bacteria. It was kind of like a marquis board flashing: "HEY E.COLI! I GOT THE THING THAT YOU LIKE RIGHT HERE!"  There's a reason that Pa Ingalls waited until the nights were cold and the leaves were falling to slaughter his pigs. 

After ten days or so, my meat started to spontaneously juice. 

Juiced meat is not a good sign. There's a book I read and keep handy on the shelf called "Ham: An obsession with the hindquarter". (I raise pigs in my backyard so that I can put their hindlegs in a box in my basement. Of course I own this book).  In it, the author answers the question, "how do I know if my ham has gone bad" by explaining:

Trust me. You'll know. 

He was right. 

Sigh... ah well.  The bacon's still good, and I have a two prosciuttos from past pigs that will soon be ready. Therefore, I hereby declare this the year of salami. I've got plenty of trim, and nothing but time to get it right. 

Meanwhile, here's a picture of Apples, taking a leisurely soak. 

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Coppa & Collards

Way back at the beginning of the year, some of our friends approached us to ask if we'd donate a dinner to the school fundraiser.  The non-profit association that raised money threw a party every year, and one of the highlights was always the auction. People donated a week at a cabin they had, or tickets from their season pass that they weren't going to use. One local orthodontist always donates a complete braces workup. That's worth lots of $$, and always draws in a good set of bids. 

Some of us have fewer things to offer, but we're always up for a good meal. And so when asked, we suggested a couple of different menus that might be fun for a dinner party. We suggested a Filipino meal might be fun - a la the tasting menu we had done last fall for some friends. Or, since we do love the charcuterie, I sketched out a literal 'farm-to-table-and-the-farm-is-about-200-feet-from-this-table' menu, drawing on both the meaty-experiments we had going in the cellar, and my Southern roots.

We called it "Coppa & Collards" 

The committee selected the latter, and my Bride and I had fun fleshing out the menu. 

For the auction, we sat back in awe and watched the bidding start. Fortunately for us, it was stacked in the back half of the auction, when people had gotten into the rhythm of the event. (and after the wine had been flowing). It got some good interest. And then suddenly, the bids took off. A group of our friends had taken up a collection, and started bidding in earnest. 

$1,100.

$1,200.

$1,700.

I think in the end it went for nearly $2,000. 

It wasn't the meal. It was the cause that our friends were giving money to. The school, and some badly needed technology and other things that would make the next generation smarter, more prepared, better dressed. I don't know. I was flabbergasted by the amount of money that was just raised. I was overwhelmed by the expectations that came with preparing a meal for ten at a price a top restaurant could command. From the things (and animals) we grew in our backyard. 

I leaned over to one of our friends and said, "You know, you could just come over to our house and we'll cook for you pretty much anytime you want. Right?"

"It's for a good cause," she said. 

Good cause, sure. But now I felt a new level of pressure. This meal had to be epic

We had specified in the description that the meal would be arranged at mutual convenience, sometime in the late summer. We'd host the meal at our home, and we wanted to take advantage of the harvest & the weather, and the abundant bounty coming out of the garden in August. 

We didn't know it at the time, of course, but a) we'd be in for a beautiful summer in Massachusetts, and b) I was going to decide to take a new job in a new state just about this time.  This was the last party we'd throw in our Massachusetts home. In fact, we ended up scheduling this party for the evening before I was to start my new job outside of Portland, Maine. 

Hey. What's a little pressure between friends? 

I brought the dining table and our chairs out to the backyard. What the hell. The packers were coming a couple of days later. We figured we'd pull out all the stops for this one. 

It was later in the summer, so I strung vintage-style lights through the yard to provide lighting for the evening, and we started working up the menu. 

We wanted to highlight the lovely flavors and combinations of some of our favorite treats. This was going to be a tasting menu. But we planned enough different tastes that we knew no one was going to walk away hungry. 

We welcomed our guests with a cup of peach gazpacho made from fruit that had ripened about 15 feet from the table. (I've shared the recipe previously here) 

I had been curing several different cuts for varying lengths of time, and I was excited to share this with our friends.

From left to right, that's lardo di colannata (rich, pure pork fat cured in a marble box), a classic prosciutto, two coppa and a lamb prosciutto.  The prosciutto had been curing for two years in my cellar. 

Maybe it was better that this was a meal for friends. You tend to feel pretty emotional about any piece of meat that's been hanging for that long in your basement. 

The coppa is made from a cut from the top of the shoulder - it's a fantastic part of the pig, with a beautiful marbling throughout. I had never made this before, but Mike & Maureen, my butchers, had gushed that I had to when they finished processing last year's peanut-raised pigs. The fat was rich and sweet, and slicing into these, I was super glad I followed their advice. 

Our first course was a sampling of charcuterie, served along side some fresh pickled vegetables from our garden - beets, okra & green beans -  and a boiled peanut & tahini edamame. 

It was a great start. We served these on slate tiles - everyone got their own, and they came back clean. 

Comparing the gamey lamb prosciutto to the sweetness of the pork, and balancing with the vinegar bite of pickled veg. I could have made a meal of just this. 

But we moved on.  We had balanced the menu to alternate our traditional Italian favorites with our more Southern dishes. 

Next up was an arugula salad with fresh radish & a pimento cheese dressing,  a cup of shrimp & grits & fried green tomatoes.  Both the salad and the grits were tossed with a scattering of home-cured pancetta, fried crispy. 

Frying green tomatoes up in cornmeal is such a perfect way to use up the surplus tomato crop towards the end of the season (or in my case, a great way to get some value out of the tomato plants that were struggling to recover from the attacks of the local deer population). And the eggs, of course, had come from our hens, and had that bright, golden yolk of chickens raised on good food and allowed to range freely. 

As an interlude, we had prepared another one of our favorite treats - roast beef bone marrow. served alongside a bright, citrusy gremolata and roast cauliflower - it's something that I order pretty much anytime I find it on a menu.

 

We hadn't been able to source bones sliced lengthways (that requires a pretty good bandsaw at a butcher, and Mike's had broken down), but even served this way, along with a little spoon to scoop the lovely marrow out as a spread for the toast, it was a hit.  

As our main, we had set aside a crown roast of pork from our backyard-raised pigs (it was Honeydew, to be specific). It was lovely and rich, and set off by collard greens harvest from our garden, and apple sauce we made from the last batch of apples we'd pick from our house in Massachusetts. 

There's something about pork & apples that work so well. And we served our collards along with a bottle of white vinegar we had marinated our crop of peppers in for a spicy kick, for the more adventurous. Our daughter, the Critter (who had helped us plate all of these dishes for our guests and was a perfect server through the night) won't eat collards without that fiery vinegar. 

That girl has good taste. 

We finished the evening with a simple desert of peach cobbler (again - the last we'd pick from our little Massachusetts orchard) and fresh, homemade buttermilk ice cream. 

My Bride and I (and the Critter) had acted as servers all night - for the money our friends had raised for the evening & the school, we wanted them to have the perfect experience, and enjoyed plating and serving each course, along with the explanation of what they were eating and where it had come from. 

All of our friends who know us well know how much we enjoy sharing our passions of good food & good conversation, and this let us combine them into an absolutely lovely evening. 

For desert, we pulled up chairs of our own and joined the group to share some final bites and laughs for the evening. 

As a last party in the home that we had loved and invited so many of our friends to enjoy over the years, it was a picture-perfect, blissful evening that will stand out in our memory as a favorite. 

And we'd do it all over again without charging a penny. 

Lamb prosciutto

Last year, my Bride had given me a copy of Edward Lee's fantastic cookbook Smoke & Pickles, which is just full of fantastic goodies & recipes. (It's where I got the bourbon-pickled jalapeño recipe, which my whole family loves). 

One of the recipes that I was really itching to try was his lamb prosciutto. I've occasionally found this on menus at restaurants with good charcuterie plates, and I was especially intrigued as the recipe said you could get a good cure on in about 100 days. As opposed to the 18-24 months it takes for a pork prosciutto. 

So when I dropped off my pigs at the butcher in November, I asked Mike to set aside a bone in leg of lamb for me.  I don't know why the hell we're so averse to lamb here in the US - when we lived in England, it was easy enough and therefore relatively reasonable to get a leg of lamb for a Sunday dinner. Fortunately, our butcher is well equipped to source pretty much anything. 

Leg of lamb? No problem.  I've spared you the raw photo - but here it is after the cure. Isn't she lovely? 

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Edward Lee's recipe is for a curried prosciutto - mixing the normal salt and spices with a curry powder rub. I like a good curry, but I had a hard time imagining it on my prosciutto. And besides, this was my first go at this one, so I kept it simple. 

I followed my typical prosciutto cure - a whole lot of salt, and a little pepper thrown in for good measure. I rubbed the whole leg down well and left it to sit in the salt box for a few days - checking on it and rubbing salt in the areas that were exposed every other day or so. Give it a good turn. Check again in a couple of days. 

After about a week or ten days of this, I hung it with the other prosciuttos, and walked away. 

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I actually ended up leaving the leg to hang for about 120 days or so.  Because it was winter, and because I was leaving it for less time, I didn't bother putting a muslin sack on this one (which keeps any flies off in the summer). 

The leg of lamb is, of course, smaller than a pork leg, and because it cures faster, the change in the texture, size & heft of the meat is more noticeable.  When I pulled it down, the surface felt taut & firm. And the leg was so small, I wasn't sure how the slices would turn out. 

I cut off the main portions of meat as you can see above, and the meat was a lovely, dark, dark rose, with beautiful firm streaks of fat still visible. I sliced a few slivers off on my deli slicer to try. The flavor was amazing - more rich and (for lack of a better word) "lamb-y". 

I kept slicing. 

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I ended up with more than I thought I would, from such a small leg. My slicer was set on about as thin as it could go, but still, the leg wasn't huge. However, as you can see - I ended up with plenty to keep, and plenty to give away to a few friends. 

Because the meat was so rich, a little goes a long way - a few slices on top of a nice salad with goats cheese & light citrus vinaigrette, or maybe paired with a perfect poached egg for that lovely yolky silkiness. Perfection. 

I'll definitely be doing this one again.