A couple of weeks ago now I was lucky enough to score a ticket to a class. This was honestly the class I had been waiting for. Waiting for a very long time.
Ron Zimmerman (Herbguy on twitter, owner of Herbfarm Restaurant) posted something about a “French Pig” class. Well, that was one link I had to click. Thankfully it wasn’t spam, a virus, or a link to pills that promise something totally not required . It was the sign up sheet for a day’s class in French seam butchery of a pig, lunch at the Herbfarm, then a charcuterie class afterward.
I couldn’t click “purchase ticket” fast enough. Thankfully my quick reactions paid off. The class sold out fast, and when we tried to get my wife Danika a ticket, we learned there was a waiting list if anyone decided to drop out. A waiting list of 22 people. This class was popular.
The class was hosted by Ron at the Herbfarm, with visiting butcher Dominique Chapolard and visiting cook Kate Hill. Kate runs a cooking school in the South West of France which covers a variety of French cooking, including some fantastic stuff with pork and duck. Dominique is a master butcher, and lives just down the road from Kate. His family has been in the pig business for a long time – they grow the pig feed, they raise the pigs, they butcher them, and make some extremely tasty charcuterie from them.
To be honest though, the term “master butcher” doesn’t sum Dominique up fairly – much the same way “cook” doesn’t accurately reflect the breadth of knowledge Kate has.
(photo credit: Ron Zimmerman, Herbfarm) – Kate Hill, and well, spot the French butcher…
Perhaps this might put things in perspective. At the start of the class everyone was talkative. Volume was high. Even as Dominique set himself up in front of half of a pig (and one fantastic looking pig I have to say from Kelly Estrella’s Cheese farm) whispers were flying around the room. Dominique was going to demo French seam butchery on one half, and on the other he was going to let us lot loose on it.
As soon as he made the first cut, the whole class shut up. Not a word. After a couple of minutes I realized I had my mouth wide open. I wasn’t the only one. Dominique’s skill with a knife was honestly like nothing I had ever seen. The accuracy of his cuts, the near effortlessness of his movements. It looked easy. Seriously easy. Easy enough for my 3 year old son to do. Even watching him take the skin off the belly, which is a complete bastard to do. The skin came off in one piece, in a matter of maybe 20 seconds. It was just silly.
Let me tell you this, it ain’t easy. The mess of the other half of the pig showed that. It was a complete joy to watch someone who had honed their craft over 20 years work.
So what is French seam butchery? Well, it is pretty different to American butchery. The idea is to break down a pig, but paying attention to muscles, joints, cartilage. Pigs aren’t just hacked up into rough sections are they often are here. The cuts are made between muscles. Carefully between joints, and through cartilage. The result is some fantastic looking pieces of meat, with very little waste.
The whole process starts with the pig, Dominique explains through translation from Kate. They raise their own hogs. Raise them of grains they grow. Over the years they have got expert at delivering the right food for both a healthy pig, and tasty meat. And along the way have learned a thing or two about charcuterie. They cure a lot of meat there – both dry cured and smoked sausages, and whole muscle cuts (loin and coppa specifically). They make pate and fresh sausage. Everything they make is very pure. Pure pig. Hardly any herbs or spices. “Why cover up the taste of great pork with fragrances?” says Dominique. For him, this charcuterie is a way to show off the quality of his pigs.
Dominique started the butchery by taking out the tenderloin, perhaps the leanest and most tender muscle on the pig. From here with some small hacksaw work and swift blade movements the ham (back leg) comes off. Then off with the head. From here the hocks get chopped off, and split down the center with a clever. The belly gets removed in one whole piece from the rib cage. This was something incredible to see. It was much like filleting a fish. Dominique made it look easy, it wasn’t.
The French like boneless loins, and this is exactly what he cut. The whole loin came out. No chops. That isn’t much of a French thing. They also tend to remove all skin from their roast’s too. Pretty much the complete opposite of us British.
After that he works on the ham some more. His work here I had never seen before. He breaks it down into four even sized muscle bundles, suitable for roasting or even curing. This was pretty awe inspiring to see.
Then comes the shoulder in to sections, releasing the coppa, which is a prized cut for both slow cooking and curing. In fact, we had slow cooked (Sous Vide, 16hours) coppa for lunch that day at the Herbfarm – it was some of the best pork I have ever eaten. The coppa can be pretty hard to find here in the US, which is a shame because it really is a fantastic slow roasting cut. The shoulder gets cut into sections by following the bone with his knife, gently releasing the final bone with a good pull, and a pop. Very, very clean work. If you are friendly with a good butcher, I highly recommend asking him for the coppa. You can slow roast it for 10 hours or so in the oven, and it is fantastic.
Whilst working he had three bowls setup. In to one bowl he would put decent looking trimmings that would go in to sausage. In the other he would put worse off trimmings to go in to pate. The third bowl was for stuff to go in to the trash. At the end of breaking down a whole pig, you could hold the trash pile easily in the palm of one hand. An incredible total use of a pig. That I like to see.
(photo credit: Ron Zimmerman, Herbfarm)
We broke for a 5 course lunch, piggy in nature – prepared by the Herbfarm Restaurant. That was, unsurprisingly one of the best lunches I have ever eaten. Endless wine pours were a nice touch too!
The afternoon was spent making charcuterie from the couple of bowls of trimmings. Kate was telling us about the pate that Dominique and his family makes, and sells at the local farmers market. Their families charcuterie is so highly prized there is often a line forming at their stall before they are even set up. The French are particular about their pate’s, so that is high recommendation indeed. Dominique showed us his family method, and shared his recipe for an incredibly simple pate. Again, keeping with “simple flavorings mantra” the pate is a simple mix of pork meat, pork liver, onion, salt and pepper, and a little potato as a binder.
I have to say I was a little intrigued by the pate recipe. I have made a good many pate’s, and never used potato in it. I generally flavor mine a little more heavily too – often with lots of thyme, bay and brandy. Unfortunately we set about making the pate too late in the day to be able to sample any of the creation before leaving the class. I will say that it smelt fantastic enough for me to make the pate a few days later after the class, at home.
All I can do to summarize the day is just to say that it was eye opening. I have been interested in seam butchery for a while, but it is a tough thing to try and find here in the US, especially considering how processed most of the meat industry is. Whilst I am not skilled enough yet to wield a knife at a pig and even pretend like I could do a decent job, this class has shown me the direction I want to go in. It also enabled me to meet two people that have so much love and care for both their craft and the animals that they raise. Heck, the ticket price was worth that alone.
(photo credit: Ron Zimmerman, Herbfarm)
Dominique’s Pork Pate Recipe
Kate Hill has given me express permission to reprint Dominique’s pate recipe. I have included some extra information here about a few techniques to get a good grind on the meat, and a decent mix. He also just tops the terrine pan with caul fat, where as I had so much of it I lined the pan, and topped it with the lovely stuff.
NOTE: This pate is only worth making if you access to really good quality heritage pork. If you try it with factory farmed grocery store stuff you are going to wonder what all the fuss is about.
1kg (2.2lb) total of pork shoulder and belly (I like to use about 1.6lb of shoulder, and the rest belly – depending on how fatty the shoulder is)
100g fresh pork liver
100g yellow onion
100g cooked potato (no skin)
18g salt (that is his standard ratio of 14g salt per 1kg of product)
3g freshly ground black pepper (that is his standard ratio of 2g pepper per 1kg of product)
caul fat – 1 sheet of it – about 1ftx1ft should be enough
Put your grinder and attachments in the freezer for at least 1 hour prior to making this pate. Put the meat in there too.
Preheat oven to 350F
Boil the pork liver for a couple of minutes if you want. This will remove any bitter taste. Cool in an ice bath. Cut in to rough chunks. Cut the shoulder and belly in to rough chunks.
Mix all the ingredients together, except for the caul fat. Working quickly pass this mixture through your meat grinder with a coarse plate, in to an ice cold bowl.
Line a terrine, or loaf pan with the caul fat, leaving enough overhang to wrap over the top of the pate. Push the ground mixture into the terrine or loaf pan. Push it down really well, making sure there are no air pockets. Wrap the caul fat over the top of the pate.
Place this terrine (or loaf pan) in an dish a hot water, and put this in the preheated oven. Let this bake until the internal temperature of the pate reaches 160F – this will most likely take about an hour.
Remove from the oven, and float the terrine dish in a bowl of ice water to cool it down rapidly. Place in the fridge, covered, once cool enough.
NOTE: It is best to make this a couple of days before you want to eat it, and keep it in the fridge – this will help the flavors meld, and will make an even tastier pate.
Red Onion Confit Recipe (a side for the pate, shown above)
NOTE: I first made this a year ago, to pair with some scallops and pine nuts. Since then I tend to always make it as a lovely side to a charcuterie plate. The sweet/sharp goes fantastically well with any traditional potted meat recipe.
3 red onions
3 tablespoons of robust red wine
3 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon of honey
small bunch of thyme
salt and pepper
small bunch of parsley
Slice the red onions reasonably thinly. In a large pan add a tablespoon or two of oil, and toss in the red onions. When they start to sound like they are hot, add a good pinch of salt and good grind of pepper. Mix. Add the red wine, vinegar and honey to mix.
Take the leaves off the thyme bunch, and add to the onions. Stir, and cook over a low flame for about 35 minutes, until most of the liquid has been absorbed, and what is left is somewhat syrupy.
Allow the onions to cool. Taste, and adjust seasoning if required. Before serving add a little chopped parsley for color and freshness.