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.

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