Why this Cajun Makes Charcuterie
The word charcuterie is a catch all for many kinds of salted, cured meats. Sausage is also a broad term which could be, but usually is not, considered a subset of charcuterie. The same could be said of salame. Charcuterie was introduced into the english language from the french words char(meat/flesh) and cuit(cooked). Salami is an italian word, derived further from latin and denotes inclusion of “all kinds of salted meats”. These are ancient words that describe ancient processes in order to prevent ancient problems, that is the salting of meats to preserve them from rot and stave off starvation.
When we think of sausages, we generally think of ground pork or beef that is heavily seasoned and stuffed into tubular hog or beef casings and then smoked or heated to an internal temperature that renders a fully cooked product. Salamis and the French saucisson varietal of charcuterie are also meats that are seasoned and stuffed into casings. They are not typically smoked, but are hung up to dry, ferment, and cure. This fermentation and curing stage is the key distinguishing factor which separates what we think of as typical sausage and charcuterie. This curing stage takes weeks and sometimes months as the lactic acid producing bacteria lowers the pH to a level that is not hospitable to harmful bacteria and the drying process also makes a less moist environment, a further deterrent to spoilage. Before refrigeration, meat was carefully prepared and set aside for later consumption but only after a laborious and timely process of salting, spicing, and waiting. A full explanation on all salami and charcuterie can, and does, fill entire books so I will have to limit the expansiveness of my descriptions. French charcuterie is very broad and goes far beyond salted meats stuffed into animal casings. It also includes terrines, rillettes, and pates, living up to the “cuit” or “cooked” half of the word charcuterie.
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I can’t say that the panache and lofty view of charcuterie today is recent enough to call trendy, but charcuterie in the United States has long passed from a food of necessity to a more expensive, treasured fare. This is likely because of the meticulous preparation required to make it is only endured for the love of the product. In other words, there is no “have to” anymore, only “want to”. Just as craft beers are now often preferred over domestics, charcuterie is cherished for its craftsmanship and tendency for its makers to wear a beret. It is ,however, new at the Acadian Superette. I’ve been making sausage for as long as I’ve been in business but this new fascination with charcuterie has been a great cause for reflection on why I do what I do. Why I love making sausage, andouille, and bacon requires little introspection. I love fire. I love smoke. I love the ways these things taste. I love butchering and cutting meat. I love the smell in the air as these products are made. I love feeling tied to my ancestors and feeling like I am carrying on a tradition that Acadiana carries on better than anywhere in these United States. Charcuterie takes me even farther back in time. I imagine poor farmers lucky enough to have obtained a hog for slaughter and not wanting to lose one ounce of its flesh for consumption. They would have needed to preserve it by whatever means necessary. Their constant strive for survival is what led to the eventual discovery that applying salt and sometimes smoke would allow them to slaughter animals in the fall, but eat meat until spring.
We have all heard and appreciated the explanation that early Cajuns used smoke as a way to preserve meat, I just don’t feel like I am really preserving meat unless I am making charcuterie. When I butcher a hog, carefully consider which seasonings are going to flavor it, stuff it into casings, and then hang it to dry in conditions meant to mimic the European changing seasons, then wait a month, I do. Charcuterie making requires me to consider many factors. We have to encourage fermentation for lactic acid production. We have to allow for moisture loss. We have to wait for weeks, months or years for all conditions to have been met before we can cut and serve our product. As with all things, one will feel more pride in something labored for.
I still make cajun sausage and andouille. These products do have a longer shelf life than a link of fresh sausage or boudin, but are too often just pulled from a plastic wrapping and tossed a gumbo or on a bun. Our appetite for these delicious products leaves us little time to consider that the flavor imparted by smoking is a bonus that was originally secondary to the sodium nitrite production that smoking accomplishes to greatly lengthen shelf life. Some Charcuterie products do make use of smoking as well as a fermentation process. I have been making some andouille of my own design that is “quick cured” for about 3 days in a warm environment. This quick fermentation period develops a more robust, tangy taste. It also draws out more moisture. After It is cold smoked at around 100 degrees Fahrenheit, you have a product that will last almost indefinitely without refrigeration.
If you are fortunate enough to live in Acadiana, you have certainly enjoyed some great smoked meats that make our food special. Consider that all of these products were uniquely tailored to our unique climate and food sources. This is why our sausages, tasso, chaudin, andouille, etc is so different from Polish kielbasa, french saucisson sec, and spanish chorizo. Enjoy our differences, appreciate our influences, come to the Superette and taste some history.