In the foreward top chef Thomas Keller states that Charcuterie is important for several reasons however, most importantly it recognizes the pig as a superior creature that it is. “From a culinary standpoint, the pig is unmatched in the diversity of flavors and textures it offers the cook and the uses it can be put to-from head to tail, from ham to tenderloin, it’s a marvel. A piece of pork belly can be brined, roasted, grilled, sauteed, dry cured, braised, or confited, with widely varying results. This a very hopeful time for the pig in America, and Charcuterie underscored that fact.”
Many believe that one can essentially eat everything on a pig except the oink. One such champion of this spirited bunch is Fergus Henderson, author of “The Whole Beast, Nose to Tail Eating” and the follow up book “Beyond Nose to Tail”. Fergus begins the book by stating, “This is a celebration of cuts of meat, innards, and extremities that are more often forgotten or discarded in today’s kitchen; it would seem disingenous to the animal not make the most of the whole beast: there is a set of delights, textural and flavorsome, which lie beyond the fillet.”
I couldn’t subscribe any stronger to this principle or better yet, way of life! In fact, I believe this is a small microcosm of what is wrong with the world today.
With that out of the way let’s explore our compadre, The Pig, as detailed by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in his biblical-type masterpiece “The River Cottage MEAT book”.
Jowl: a wide slender slab of meat and fat that can be cured like pancetta and hung to dry, then used like bacon or sliced paper-thin and eaten as is.
Shoulder: The pig’s shoulder is the primal cut that includes the front leg and the area above the leg. Undivided, it makes for a massive on-the-bone roasting joint that will feed 20 plus. More typically, the shoulder is broken down into two sub primal cuts: the boston butt and the picnic or picnic shoulder. Boston Butt- the upper part of the cut including the shoulder blade. Whether on the bone, or boned out, rolled up, and tied, the butt is one of the prime roasting joints of pork. It has plenty of lean meat, but is also interlaced with fatty connective tissue that helps keep it lubricated as it roasts. Picnic Shoulder– the upper part of the pig’s foreleg is fattier, more sinewy and tougher than the butt; it’s good for grinding into sausages. Cured on the bone, then boiled, it makes what butchers call the picnic ham.
Spareribs: The spareribs are those trimmed from inside the belly. They’ll always have a reasonable amount of meat attached and between the ribs is a particularly promising blend of lean meat, fat, and sinew, offering much finger-licking delights when properly prepared.
Loin: Loins are very long on a pig, and an undivided whole loin on the bone would produce a wonderful, lean roasting joint-though too big for most ovens. The bone-in loin comprises the first eight to ten ribs from the head end. Or the loin can be divided into three smaller roasting joints – rib roast, loin roast and sirloin roast. Each of these joints can be subdivided into chops: from back to front of the loin. The tenderloin is the fillet of delicate lean meat that runs along the other side of the loin from the ribs. It is extra-tender but dries out very easily if overcooked.
Bacon: The belly of the pig where of course the fruit of the gods aka bacon heralds from. The bacon or belly is generally about the same length as the loin and ranges in thickness as it travels from the head to the ham. The belly is far more useful then it most typical state of cured and smoked bacon. The belly can be roasted into a fabulous and forgiving roast-so richly fatted that it is almost impossible to overcook.
Leg/Ham: Most legs of pork go to make cured hams. A whole leg produces a massive ham on the bone, of the kind you might glaze and bake for Christmas, serve hot once, and then keep carving cold for friends and family well into the New Year. Since few households will want to embrace such a mammoth cur more than once or twice a year, most legs are now divided into two or three smaller bone-in or boneless hams. The leg is very lean, so you need the best possible pork for a roast that won’t dry out-a good layer of fat to protect it, plus as much marbling as possible.
Hocks: The first joint of the leg, below the picnic in the front and the ham in the back. The hock is mostly skin and bone, with a little tough meat and lots of connective tissue; it renders up plenty of gelatin and flavor – think of it either as a poor man’s ham or a rich man’s trotter (below). Hocks can be used in pork stock, added to stews for additional body (hehehe, sorry-couldn’t resist), or smoked or cured and added with a pair of old gym shoes in water. Really, they are that good.
Trotters (feet): The feet of the pig, the ones from the front legs usually being cut longer than the ones from the back legs. The amount of meat on them is marginal, but what they offer the adventurous cook is something very precious-rich gelatinous sinews, flavorsome, body-giving bone; and a tough skin that can be simmered, over hours, to melting tenderness.
Backfat: The layer of subcutaneous fat may be as much as 1 ½ inches thick in a well fattened pig. There are several charcuterie applications that highlight this succulent delight up to and including cured pig fat fried in pig fat! Now that’s phat fat!