Monday, December 22, 2008

Chewing the Fat at North Park Meat Co.

There's something so fundamentally basic about eating a really good piece of smoked or cured meat. It represents our carnivorous side but also our frugal side and a whole lot of human creativity and ingenuity. Without refrigeration, by necessity cultures around the world had to devise a way to preserve hard-won meats. Sun and wind did the job until fire was discovered and methods were created to cook and dry the meats to make them last longer and prevent spoilage and botulism. Somewhere along the way, "salting" was found to cure meats and then salting, drying and smoking were combined to lend additional flavors to the meat along with preserving them by creating physiological, chemical and bacteriological changes to the protein.

We've become used to commercially prepared hot dogs, bacon, ham and sausages but if you've ever tried an artisan-prepared piece of smoked or cured meat you know it's a very different flavor experience. It's not the saltiness that hits your tongue with such power; it's the woods, the spices, the meat itself that makes an impact. And, when the meat comes from pastured animals, it's that much better.

So, San Diego has a new treat in store with the opening last Thursday of the North Park Meat Co. It's a little offshoot of Jay Porter's restaurant, The Linkery, which moved last year to a larger space on 30th at North Park Way. Where there has long been a bar area and extra seating to the west of the dining room, you'll now also see a meat counter with a variety of home-smoked and cured meats and fish. All the curing and smoking is done by a team of three: Michael McGuan, who runs The Linkery's meat program; Max Bonacci, The Linkery's chef; and Ernesto Romero, the primary sausage maker.

"We've been making all these products for years as part of the restaurant menu," says Porter. "But we decided to make them available for customers to buy to take home. There's nothing like this available in San Diego."

Porter pointed out that the meat comes from pastured animals owned by independent farms. "This is completely outside of the commodity chain," he explains. "The other thing is that this is artisan curing. We have a lot of historical research about traditions of smoking and curing and have recipes we've been using. So that means that if a customer comes in with a desire from a cured meat from a specific country or region of a country, we can probably make it on request. Of course, if they want a country ham made to order, it could take six months to a year to deliver it. But for bacon, it can take just a matter of weeks."

One of the reasons Porter decided to sell the cured and smoked meats to the public was the realization that people "have no idea what goes on in our kitchen. They think we buy these products off the shelf. But that slice of ham or bacon on their plate was made by us."

The offerings will change depending on the availability of the animals, which Porter buys whole from a variety of independent farmers throughout California and parts of the Western U.S.

One of the most imposing products is the enormous blackstrap molasses country ham from Berkshire breed pigs raised by Barney Bahrenfuse in Grinnell, Iowa. The hams are approximately 16 pounds each and sell for $275.

There are a variety of bacons--pork belly bacon and pork belly slab bacon, also from Bahrenfuse's pigs, pork loin Canadian bacon from Jim Neville's Hampshire and Blue Butt breed pork, beef belly navel bacon from Tallgrass Beef's Northern California co-op farm, and even goat belly bacon from Bill and Nicolette Niman in Bolinas, Calif.

I was delighted to see cured beef tongue, also from Tallgrass Beef cattle. Tongue is something my mom made when I was growing up and still a sandwich treat on occasion. Try it sliced thin on a good corn rye with mustard.

Someone recently asked me where she could find good pancetta that she could slice herself. She was looking for a place along the North County coast, but if she wants to drive down to North Park, she'll find homemade pancetta here.

If you're looking for smoked fish, North Park Meat Co. regularly has wild local smoked fish. When I was there, it was swordfish and Mexican opah.

If, on the other hand, you're looking to indulge (shhh, don't tell your doctor), Porter has the most delicious and creamy lardo, also from Barney Bahrenfuse. This is a cured pork product that comes from the layer of fat directly underneath the skin. Once considered "poor man's food" it's now considered a delicacy.

What do you do with lardo? Slice it thin and include it in on antipasto platter. Toss lardo shavings with pasta. Spread it on bread or mix it in a salad. Add it to stuffing or use it as a replacement for pancetta. It's actually very light with a creamy flavor, not at all greasy.

Now how do I know how good it is? Porter had some samples of different items, including the lardo, prepared for me while I was there.

What you see here is, from the left, thin slices of lardo, Canadian loin bacon and pork belly bacon. As a palate cleanser, we also had toasted slices of homemade bread and gorgeous slices of watermelon radishes from McGrath Family Farms.

You'll find all of these items on The Linkery's menu in different dishes, but now you can buy them and take them home to use on your own.

"We're like a lab where we can keep alive traditional foods and ways of living," says Porter. "People think this is extravagant but what they forget is that it's all based on the thrift of a pre-industrial economy.

North Park Meat Co. is attached to The Linkery at 3704 30th St. in North Park.

Print Page

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]


  1. Unfortunately, only a very small percentage of people can actually afford those prices.

  2. We can always eat cake.

  3. Great post, Caron, I would love to have a store like this in my neighborhood. Happy to eat less meat but better quality and properly raised. Have enjoyed The Linkery blog for some time.

  4. I love The Linkery and am glad to see their new Market. I plan to encourage them to offer classes in charcuterie, as I'd love to learn to make more cured meat products at home (so far I've tried only the easy ones: bacon, cured salmon, paté, rendered lard, and jerky).

    I live in the coastal North County area, and don't find many restaurants that meet my ideals up here. So for the rare occasions we go out to eat, The Linkery is our usual choice.

    BTW, there is nothing wrong with eating well-produced lard, lardo, and pork products, though you wouldn't know this from the uninformed anti-fat crowd. All fat is composed of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fatty acids; it's the ratio of these that determines how a fat/oil is saturated. There is a huge amount of evidence that high intakes of polyunsaturated fatty acids is unhealthy, with increased rates of CVD, cancer, and inflammatory diseases. But monounstarted fat and saturated fat are not associated with poor health and disease. The science is quite clear on that, if the media and misunformed medical establishment isn't. In the last 100 years, western health took a dramatic turn for the worse as healthy natural animal fats were displaced with industrial vegetable oils that were very new to the human diet in quantity.

    Pork fat is especially healthy to eat, being nearly 50% monounsaturated fatty acid, the very same fatty acid touted in olive oil. There is enough saturated fatty acids to qualify it as a solid fat, but its is quite soft compared to fats from beef/dairy, for instance.

    And while saturated fatty acids do raise LDL cholesterol, they contribute to the healthy pattern of fewer large fluffy particles instead of the decidedly unhealthy pattern of numerous small dense particles that is a result of a diet rich in sugars, grains, and high polyunsaturated fatty dicd consumption. And saturated fatty acids also raise the HDL (so-called "good" cholesterol, especially the protective HDL-2 fraction. So saturates are not only neutral for heart health, arguments can be made that naturally saturated fats are healthy to consume.

    Additionally, pastured animal products (not fed an unnatural quantity of grains and industrial livestock rations made from industrial food waste) are also much lower in the excessive omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids that create a gross imbalance of omega 3-omega 6 fatty acids in the standard western diet. So not only is the saturated fat in well-produced non-industrial meat not harmful to health, but the lower content of unstable and imbalance polyunsaturated n-6 fatty acids is healthier and more in line with the paleolithic diet on which we evolved.

    The so-called Mediterranean Diet that is promoted in the media is decidedly NOT vegetarian-oriented, in fact pork and pork fat figures prominently in several healthier (than the US) Mediterranean populations.

    Another thing to consider is the vitamin content of well-produced animal fats. Fat soluble vitamins are crucial to many processes. Indoor-confined animals (lack of sunshine & Vit D3 production) that are fed unnatural amounts of grain instead of pasture, couple with the low fat diets too many follow, and industrial processing of fats and oils all contribute to common deficiencies of fat soluble vitamins in western populations, creating deficiencies that can contribute to development of disease.

    I highly recommend a book called Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient. It's a great information book about healthy fat, with recipes.

  5. Thanks, Anna, for the very thoughtful comment you wrote. Everything in moderation. Which includes fat. And when it's this good... Oh my!

  6. I think I'm in love with Anna.

  7. "Everything in moderation."

    Especially moderation. ;-)

    Actually, I don't practice moderation at all when it comes to food. I tend to be on one extreme or the other.

    For instance, for about 5 years I've increasingly been eating a really high animal fat diet (sort of a paleo style, except with some unprocessed full fat dairy), with lots of natural fats from grassfed or wild animal foods like bison, venison, pork, lamb, some wild fish, grassfed beef & dairy (raw if possible), though not very much of the industrial seed oils (esp soy, cottonseed, canola, peanut, etc.) if I can avoid them. I do include some EV olive oil or nut oils for salad dressings and my weekly batch of homemade mayonnaise. So I'm not moderate when it comes to natural fat at all, only with modern industrial seed oils.

    Nor am I moderate about concentrated sugars and starches the past few years since discovering my first phase insulin response is shot. I rarely consume wheat of any sort anymore ( nor rye, barley, kamut, or spelt), and only minimal non-wheat grains (a bit of quinoa and oats now and even then, only in "condiment portions"), and only very moderate amounts of starchy veggies (non-starchy veggies in abundance, though). Most of my baking these days is done with low starch coconut flour, if I bake at all.

    I aim for minimal concentrated sugars and sweeteners (very little sucrose, honey, and maple syrup, or sugar substitutes, and no agave, concentrated fructose, or sugar alcohols), too, because too many carbs of any source will push my blood glucose too high (impaired glucose tolerance) and I want to avoid meds for that). With this low insulin way of eating (like our paleo ancestors), I can efficiently burn fat for energy/fuel; this tends to maintain my weight fairly easily or even promote some weight loss if I gain some while traveling or and otherwise unable to arrange my normal food habits. My sugar receptors aren't bombarded by sugar anymore, so I can even taste the sugars in very fresh romaine lettuce! Almost all commercially sweetened items or conventional recipes taste much too sweet for me - and our family, 10 yo son included, tends to go for 70-88% dark chocolate now instead of brown waxy sugar chocolate, aka milk chocolate. My son will happily chew raw cocoa nibs and drink unsweetened cappuccino, too.

    We love good food, especially traditional recipes and regional specialties. Many of my favorite recipes are the older versions, before dumbing down and cutting the fat. I make it a priority to cook for my family (though I am a lazy cook in many ways and make a lot of slow-cooked recipes and "planned-overs" instead of fast-cooking premium cuts and I try to stick to local and/or seasonal options for most of our family's food. I can afford some of the more expensive higher quality foods because we no longer buy very many PPP (processed, prepared, and/or packaged) grocery store "edible foodlike substances" and we obtain more foods directly from the producer through ranch co-op bulk meat buys, CSAs for produce, "backyard" egg producers, etc. ( a big freezer helps and saves lots of money in the long run, so does a slow cooker).

    Lest anyone worry about my arteries, just last week I had a calcium coronary scan (EBT heart scan) as a baseline measurement and had an excellent score of 0 - NO measurable calcium deposits in my coronary arteries (46 yo female, perimenopausal, never smoked). Guess my 2-4 eggs cooked in grassfed butter every day agrees with me. My LDL cholesterol shows the favorable "large, fluffy" pattern, and my HDL is in a nice high range. I really should do some strength building exercise, though, but...

    I was really happy to find this local food blog a few weeks ago when I was looking for a local source for a coconut grater to add to my "wish list" (I think my secret Santa has taken care of it, too). I wanted to start making coconut milk instead of relying on canned. I also learned about a local avocado oil to try, too.

  8. Oh, I'm just the same type of person, I really don't eat much normally; but when it's anything my fav; I just can't resist it anyhow! Also @ Caron, wonderful stuff written. Thumbs up for such a nice job ...