Charcuterie, the Meats of the Moment

Eric Snider
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Charcuterie, generally served cold, is hot — and getting hotter.

What was centuries ago a means to preserve the entire pig, and thus waste none of it, has evolved into a de rigueur item on the menus of fine dining establishments.

A bevy of restaurants and wine bars in Tampa Bay feature boards of exotic cured and processed meats. They’re often accompanied by cheeses, vegetables — roasted, grilled, pickled — and artisan breads.

At least three top-tier eateries in Tampa have taken charcuterie to the next level by making their own sausages, bolognas, headcheeses, galantines, pates, terrines, pancettas, et al.

The recently opened Haven, which replaced SideBern’s in South Tampa, not only produces its own meats but has made the charcuterie/cheese slicing station a focal point of its dining room. “We’re selling the heck out of it,” said Executive Chef Chad Johnson.

Ava, the rustic Italian place that opened in November just up Howard Avenue from the Bern’s cluster, doles out 30-40 boards of salumi (the Italian equivalent) on weekend nights, said Executive Chef Joshua Hernandez.

Mise en Place moved a lot of charcuterie in the ’80s, then saw it get eclipsed by other trends. “We probably went through a period where we had like two pates,” said Co-owner Maryann Ferenc. About five years ago, Chef Marty Blitz started producing his own meats.

Now Mise en Place is back to offering a full array, Ferenc said, adding, “It’s been about two years since we haven’t had to push it. People ask about it, are naturally gravitating toward it.”

Here to stay?

The charcuterie movement looks to be a more durable trend than a passing fad, say advocates. It fits in with the relatively new dining custom that skews toward shared plates and communal eating.

“I’ve seen four-tops of [women] on their way to the bars on South Howard order the meat board and destroy it,” Hernandez said.

At first glance, gobbling platters of fat-laden meat would seem to run counter to healthy eating. But charcuterie by nature is consumed in small portions, which earns it marks for moderation. It also gets cred for sustainability — using parts of animals that are often discarded.

Also: “The diner who comes in the door of a restaurant with a charcuterie station gets a bit of theater and a visual cue that says ‘freshness,’ which is in high demand,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, a Chicago-based food industry research firm.

Shared meat boards are enjoying their moment, he says, because “the basic consumer equation, post-recession, has changed from price first to freshness, artisanal values and craftsmanship.”

Passionate practitioners

Producing charcuterie sparks deep passion among its practitioners. As a part of Ava’s rollout charcuterie program, Hernandez served prosciutto that he purchased. That’s because hams take longest to produce — in the two-year range. Once his own, less time-intensive, meats were ready, he dropped the Italian ham so his salumi would be “100 percent house-made.”

“I’ve got a few hams in my chamber,” Hernandez said. “They should be ready in about another year and a half.”

For now, he’s concocting items like red wine and black pepper salami, cinnamon salami, pancetta (cured pork belly) and coppa (cured pork shoulder).

On a recent Friday, Haven’s chef de cuisine, Courtney Orwig, was butchering Wagyu eye-round beef into loins that would turn into Bresaola after about a nine-day process that involved salting and air-drying. Outside, future duck summer sausage was arrayed in a smoker.

It’s these kinds of culinary efforts and quality ingredients that separate today’s fine-dining charcuterie from cellophane-wrapped summer sausage at the mall and suspect mystery meats in the deli cooler.

Tristano, the food-industry analyst, says the restaurant charcuterie boom probably drafted off of consumer interest at food stores.

“As supermarkets got more sophisticated in their offerings and specialty markets gained a foothold in markets like Tampa Bay, people came in to buy the exotic meats and cheeses and wines,” he said. “I think the supermarket demand fueled the restaurants.”

He expects diners to see more and more charcuterie boards. “The trend is moving into smaller markets with less of a foodie reputation,” he said, “and also beyond just high-end restaurants and into places with lower price points.”

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