If there were such a thing as culinary astrology, we would definitely be shivering through the Year of Meat. Prepared meats, specifically; that genre of carnivore delights that embraces everything from the simple Slim Jim to the ambitious pâté en croûte.
“Charcuterie” a catch-all term for meats that have been smoked, ground, spiced-up, boiled, cured, bathed in rendered fat, stuffed, emulsified, rolled, and/or fermented, is popping up on menus all over Columbus. A couple years ago, the only charcuterie to be found on menus around town was, if you were lucky, a sausage sampler. Today, such spreads are the new tuna tartare of the appetizer community.
One of the most ambitious assortments belongs to The Table, the warmly received newcomer at Fifth and High. Meat man Donte Allen fell in love with the art while on a trip to Florence. “It was the last night and we were walking down a road that forked,” recalled Marcus. “We decided to go to the left and the only shop that was open was a Salumeria – it was like in the movies, a light came on and ahhhhhhh.”
“There was an old Italian butcher who spoke in broken English and Italian and he just started feeding me, letting me try everything. There were two things that stood out – a traditional lomo and a Tucson fennel sausage. It was just delicious – I had an epiphany and was like, ‘Why don’t we have this in America?’”
That was three years ago and Allen has been learning, exploring, creating, and sharing the art ever since.
As is so often the case with foodstuffs that ascend to fanatical heights, charcuterie itself evolved out of a basic need – the need to preserve meat. With no hulking stainless steel ‘fridge humming in the corner, butchers came up with various ways to extend the life of the flesh. From curing with salt to leech out all the moisture, such as with bacon, to packing meat in rendered fat, a la rillettes, to air-drying seasoned and ground meats, like salumi. This technique also allows for every bit and morsel of the animal to be used, whether ground up in sausage or folded into a pâté. “Charcuterie incorporates everything,” explained Allen. “You use everything and waste nothing.”
The word charcuterie comes to us from the French, of course, and it literally means “flesh cooked,” but in modern parlance basically is a flowery word for “deli.” Not all “flesh cooked” traditions come out of France, however. The Explorers Club’s Dan Varga throws back to his grandmother’s Hungarian ethnicity for his inspiration. “For me, this connects to my family roots,” he explained. “I remember my grandmother smoking sausage overnight in the fireplace.”
When Varga shows off his charcuterie, he calls it his “baby.” “This is really a skill,” he said. “Not a lot of chefs take the time – it’s hard work and takes a lot of time and effort.” Varga starts listing all the variables at work in his charcuterie process: air temperature, how to dry, why to dry, moisture, texture. “You’ve got to use all your senses,” he added.
“You know, I did poorly in chemistry,” he laughed. “I just couldn’t grasp it – now it’s something I use all the time. My chemistry teacher would be shocked.”
Varga’s chemistry teacher might be shocked, but she’d be satiated as well. Charcuterie isn’t just cool, but it’s also a nod to communal dining, which is ever-present now in new restaurant concepts. The Sycamore manager, Michael Vehlber, notes that it’s on the menu to encourage more tasting and sharing. “It’s a more European way of eating,” he said. With all the flavors competing on the plate, Vehlber suggests diners tipple the Stone Smoked Porter out of San Diego, as it mirrors the depth of the charcuterie.
As restaurant patrons, Columbusites are lucky to be living in such an auspicious time for omnivores. The stars have aligned and inspired a burst of meaty creativity. Go on, take a bite.
1. Wild boar sausage & microgreens, The Sycamore, German Village
2. Canal Junction Gouda, Drunken Goat, & Kokoborrego All charcuterie plates needs some lovely, funky, cheese bites, The Sycamore
3. Country Paté A lovely paté, with crunch from pistacios, The Table, Short North
4. Fennel sausage An aromatic sausage with a hint of anise from the fennel, The Table
5.Jamon blanc A less-fatty, “white” ham that is very French, The Table
6. Chorizo From the Iberian Peninsula, chorizo is a spicy pork sausage, Explorer’s Club, Merion Village
7. Duck pastrami A rich take on the deli standard, Explorer’s Club
8. Hungarian sausage Keeping the Hungarian roots of the South end, Explorer’s Club
9. La Quercia Borsellino, The Sycamore