Last month I drove from Oklahoma to Maine with the French Butcher- Dominique Chapolard of the large moustaches and beret. Although not the first time in the USA, it was Dom’s first America Road Trip, a peek into my native habitat, and a key to understanding what lies at the heart of our craving for real food, real meat, real lives.
Seeing America from a road-side seat is an old tradition in my family. Long cross country jaunts in a big wood-paneled station wagon from California to Maine were part of my childhood. A childhood defined by yearly moves, new schools and family car vacations fueled by nomadic parents. My Mom crossed America 12 times before my older brother was a year old. She jumped in a car with a brand new driver’s license and a baby in a bassinet to set off across the States. She met my Dad’s ship as it moved from East Coast port to West Coast port. Dad was a Navy career man with a sinking ship tattoo, a ready laugh and giant hands. In between 6-month-long sea duty on an ocean-going tug, the Abenaki, he would drive my mother and us three kids from coast to coast stopping for date milkshakes in Indio, Ca or to take a Kodachrome photograph of us in front of a giant Tee-Pee Motel in Kingman, Az. He drove us along Route 66 like it was our personal family driveway stopping for gas, strawberry soda and souvenir gemstones. Long hours of car bingo and “I spy” were orchestrated by Mom and once my brother and sister dozed off, Dad would often drive all night. I sat up in the front, wedged between my two larger-than-life parents on the bench seat, waiting to spot deer, coyotes or other road animals in the headlights and to help keep my Dad awake. At 8 years old, I knew the dangers of late night driving from the Highway Patrol TV series, and it was my self-appointed job- long distance road trip chatty co-pilot. It must have driven Dad crazy.
Fifty years later, I was sharing co-pilot duties with my French colleague as we drove from workshop to workshop across America in a sort of French Pig Roadshow. Four workshops stretched between a brand new culinary institute in Oklahoma City (here) to Neal Foley’s family farm in mid-coast Maine (here). Along the way, we met pig farmers, butchers, cooks, teachers and home enthusiasts. We ate home-made burgers, diner fried chicken, bbq pork… and more pork. In just eight days, twenty-one pigs and a half were butchered- French style, transformed into farmstead charcuterie and then distributed to the forty+ participants. Days between workshops were spent driving in front of tornadoes, along big Rivers and through the green belt of the Appalachians. So we were off to see America and what grows between the big cities.
We left Lexington KY for the D.C. area workshop with a long stretch of beautiful Spring dogwoods ahead of us. My Appalachian Spring high was destroyed when I got a text informing me that the ordered pigs for tomorrow’s class were missing in action. A slip in communication? an email going astray? an administration mis-understanding? – it didn’t matter. It was 3:30 in the afternoon along Highway 64 in West Virginia and we were pigless.
This is where I started praying and punching buttons. Twitter. Facebook. Emails. Anyone got a bead on some pigs, any pigs, even one that I could beg for? Miles went by and time was running out. And then from the great internet ether came the answer-” Talk to EcoFriendly Foods. He’s got pigs.” I called. No one was home. It was getting dark in the little valleys. We stopped for gas along the road and there was a livestock auction going on next door. We raised an eyebrow but kept driving.
Then the great resource called social media delivered. Charcutepalooza Pal, Cathy Barrow made contact with Pam at Wagshal’s and new charcuteria buddy Jeffrey Weiss got through to Bev Eggleston. We’d have student pigs via Wagshal’s for the afternoon workshop but to get a big pig, the sort of XL-sized, mature 12 month old hog that Dominique and his brothers raise, we’d have to make a sidetrip to Moneta VA and pick up the pig from Bev’s plant in our rental car on our way to DC. I pulled over to talk to Bev himself. He was driving a load of pork to restaurant clients in North Carolina. He wanted to help us out. He’d make it happen. We were a couple hours away, but his crew would return to the plant- it was now after 8 pm and wrap up a pig to go- ice bags, plastic, and tarps. You gotta love a guy like that! So this roadshow took a detour in the middle of nowhere West Virginia and went off track in search of a pig. Some Pig!
By the time we got to Moneta, the half a hog weighing about 160 pounds, was ready for us and Jay Faucher and his 10 year old son were waiting to give us a guided tour of the USDA processing plant, and their own American charcuterie. It was nearly ten pm. As relieved as I was to get this beautiful pig for the demonstration, I was delighted to meet the people behind the commitment. Next time, I hope to meet Mr. Eggleston in person. We loaded the beast in the back sticking out of the trunk into the backseat determined to make it to our reserved hotel in Woodbridge VA.
The rest of the night we drove, dodging deer gangs on the shoulders of the lonely roads, and talked about the strong movement for good food we were experiencing (and being a part of!) all across America. Even an over-eager sheriff pulling me over for speeding 62 in a 60 mile an hour zone couldn’t tarnish my good mood. I thought of my Dad, Broderick Crawford and all the CSI shows I’ve watched. I was just grateful the young Sheriff didn’t ask to see what was hidden under the big blue tarp protruding into the backseat from the trunk. That and the Frenchman sitting next to me with a suitcase full of butcher’s knives. Oh, and the salt- kilos of salt.
By the time we got to D.C., unpacked the car and got a short night’s sleep, I knew that the drive across America, now called the French Pig Road Show, would have to include meeting more of the farmers and small processing plants that keep our good charcuterie workshops alive. That Eco-Friendly Farm half a pig was by far the best of the 43 half hogs we butchered. Solid red meat, good fat cap, and slaughtered with respect and care. Thanks for making it happen Jeff, Jay and especially- Bev. Next time on a French Porc Road Trip, call in for some Gascon Pork Love.
My Dad, Walter Elmo Hill was born in Cushing, OK on May 17 1922; died April 9 1964. Memories are forever…
Returning to Camont after a month away is usually bittersweet. Rainy days of April, warming spring days and a super fertile River valley terrain produces a growth spurt akin to Amazonian Rain Forest scale. While I love working my garden, growing enough vegetables, fruit and fresh herbs for our classes and sustain a small village, I don’t love the tall grass, weeds and invasive spirit of the French nettle world.
This year however, the house sprites have been busy. Thanks to Friendly Neighbor Olivier and Stephanie C.E.S. (Cinderella Extraordinaire Sister), I returned from a month of French Pig workshops to find Camont in abundant green garb and ready for action. And action we got!
New Butchery & Charcuterie students arriving hot on my heels were joined by a last minute Photo Crew from a major mag. Would Camont be suitably tamed for prime time viewing? Would the international photographer see the charm of the unruly calla lilies, the over abundant wysteria, the worn garden chairs? Would the new students taste the difference in our pure French Farmstead Charcuterie hanging from a beam in the laundry room/piggery?
At the end of this first day of the Spring season, I tumble into my bed, a tangle of yet unpacked clothes on one side, as a May nightingale lights up the evening with his song. Home.
Sweet Gascon Home.
Traveling on the French Pig Workshop road means less time to prepare pretty posts with Frenchy pictures of my Kitchen at Camont.
Traveling on the French Pig Roadshow circuit also means catching up with old friends and new- in person and over the airways.
First stop-SFO for the IACP (that’s the International Association of Culinary Professionals to you!) always dynamic annual international conference. I’m lucky to get over at the right time this year and look forward to connecting with friends, colleagues and students. Now meat Kari Underly of Range Inc.- third-generation Master Butcher and Grrls Meat Camp co-founder.
Join us for the first ever Grrls Meat Camp ’Modern Butchery for Women Workshop’ with master butcher Kari Underly (above by Jennifer Marx) and Me on the farm in Napoleon Ridge Kentucky. April 12-14. Want to know more? Spaces still available. Read about it here: http://kitchen-at-camont.com/grrls-meat-camp-workshop/
Next, a series of four French Pig Workshops with my Mustachioed & Beret-sporting Butcher Buddy Dominique Chapolard (seen here with alumni Peruvian Chef Renzo Garibaldi). There are a few spaces at these workshops and you sign up here: http://kitchen-at-camont.com/2013/02/24/two-day-workshops-in-the-usa-the-french-pig-making-farmstead-charcuterie/
What can you expect to learn? More than you dreamed about. We teach and share our lives not just how to breakdown a beast. Setting up a business, creating a new idea, living your own dream. Want some inspiration? look what Kitchen-at-Camont Butchery & Charcuterie program alumni Camas Davis has started here and contribute a little porky love to her Kickstarter dream: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1922917888/meat-collectives-across-america.
Interested? Come Meat Me in San Francisco, Kentucky, Oklahoma, DC and Maine… or write Katedecamont (at) me (dot) com .
A tout de suite!
That’s the ticketing for my April.
What it means for you, if you are following the madness known as The Roadshow Madness Month, is that I have a packed a bag of porky French goodness, in my bags and am hitting the trail spreading the word of grrls making salty meaty morsels and seed-to-sausage farming. Come along and meet me and my talented colleagues as we offer the inside tips, hands-on training, and gentle guidance to understanding meat from the ground up.
What it means to me is a long clear look at my Gascon home before I leave and what I’ll be missing all month:
- Bees. I give a last little look at the hive and am reassured that the honey grrls are working hard, have lots of wild flowers left un-mowed to feast on as the orchard comes into bloom.
- Barnworks. The supporting walls are up and finished and will get their roof while I am gone. I’ll be missing the truss raising party and the tiling, but I’ll be delighted when I return to have a safe and dry roof over the new Keeping Kitchen at Camont.
- Gardens. The potager is loaded with underground activity and all those seeds should have germinated by the time I return. Head Gardenr Finegan is plotting the new Forest Garden next to the orchard and chicken coop so I’ll be looking out for seeds and ideas as I travel.
- Bacon. No, not the porky kind but the furry dog friend kind. He can be a real pain in the rear sometimes, but our little 70 kg bundle of doggy love is hard to leave when I get the evil eye for the suitcase.
- Pantry. Hams, braseola, and magrets are all drying in the piggery pantry. Jars of confit and confitures are waiting for my return to be turned into spring cassoulets and other festive meals. Cooking at Camont means raiding the pantry that I work all year to stock.
Au Revoir Planète Camont! There is family and food trucks waiting, farm grrls and butchers to meet, American heritage pigs to cook and Franco/American beans to cassoulet. I’ll be lobstahing and drinking tequila, staying up with old friends and young great-nieces and nephews. I’ll be taking the temperature of the farm to table talk, the leaning in, and sharing the French Seed-to-Sausage philosophy. If you get a minute New World, let me tell you about the Old World and its good new ways of sustaining food- both on the farm and in the kitchen.
For more information:
A cuddle of black and white piglets under a heat lamp in a barn perched on the side of a mountain in the Pyrenees-
Meet the Porc Basque.
And this is where it ends- 3 years later.
A hall of ham in the same Pyrenees Mountains ageing with the help of the dry Foehn wind.
Meet the Kintoa Ham.
The journey our food takes from live animal to edible product is a long and precarious one. Even a simple carrot is a year of careful work and attention to a complex web of details from soil care and weather to weeding, harvesting and preserving. In the four weeks that our students spend here in Southwest France, on the Chapolard farm and in the markets, shops and kitchen at Camont, they also make that journey. From an idea of what pork is to the visceral understanding of making food from seed-to-sausage, I watch as the one by one, each butcher, cook, or want to be farmer takes the steps in his or her own way. On the way to the mountains we stop at Hasparren- home of the Louis Ospital workshop. Here, Ibaiona Pork Master Eric Ospital shares his little gourmet cult cut- lepoa, destined for the finest restaurants in Paris. I met Eric and the World of Ham a year ago here.
On the last trip to the Pyrenees Valley of Les Aldudes, the Spring ’13 gang of four (Kirsty, Adam, John and Analiesa) were joined by guest Welsh Pig Guru Illtud Llyr Dunsford. For a look at his own French Jaunt journey, check out his thoughtful blog here. Reading about his trip, inspired me to think about my own. Each small group I teach is different and although personalities do factor into learning and time spent together, I see a common pattern emerge. In the beginning, we all look for the similarities.
A pig is a pig is a pig until it becomes a PIG. While working at the Chapolard farm- Baradieu- all pigs are big- 400 lbs plus. Although housed in various European pig sheds just outside the meat cutting room door, they keep a rather low profile as our focus is on the final product- farmstead charcuterie. One of the reasons I whisk the group away from the cradle of a single farm focus is to shake our comfortable relationship with the family farm and introduce the idea that there are a hundred ways into the harbor*.
This is a very different harbor indeed. This is where the differences begin to tell. These fern-thatched nursery sheds are located just outside the Pierre Oteiza production facility and boutique in Aldudes. Mother sows and porcelets are kept here under a watchful eye until the piglets are weaned at 6-8 weeks when they are moved to mountain parks for the rest of their adult lives. It’s easy to spend a couple hours just watching the juvenile antics of the young within walking distance of the restaurant where we enjoyed a long and porky lunch- from prized Kinto jambon to stuffed pigs’ ear terrine served with pickled cherries and a good bottle of Irouleguy.
We talked a lot on the road.
About people’s expectations in buying high welfare meat. About how good animal husbandry isn’t always as pretty as consumers would like to see. Producing good quality meat is a lot of work and yes, there is mud and pig shit. Just ask Kiwi Kirsty as she completes a couple weeks of continuing education mucking around with pigs. Her Plog here is an insider’s few of Pig School here in Gascony.
Next, there are a myriad of small differences that begin to make themselves known. Here at the Chapolards, we make small boneless Noix de Jambon, like culatello but smaller cuts. But this high Basque valley area is famous for ham- on my own map of SW France I call it Ham Heaven. From these farms to this table, or in this case from those Basque piglets to this beautiful Kinto ham rubbed red with the Basque panacea Piment d’Espelette, there are a lot of small important steps: the careful tending and feeding of the animals who live most of their adult life outside until the age of 12-15 months; the slaughter and butchering of the carcasses; the salting, drying and ageing of the hams in this specially designed ‘sechoir’ or curing facility for another 12-18 months. A total of three years plus if add in the gestation period of the piglets.
Most often we eat the salty fruit of all these labors with barely a thought of the day-to-day work that goes into making our basic food. But I trust that after 4 weeks of up front and personal contact with the French farmers, butchers and charcutiers that grow, tend, slaughter, butcher and transform, this well-dressed group, including me, will spend an extra little moment of reflection on the people who make the food we eat. Thanks to all our welcoming hosts-charcutiers Eric Ospital, Catherine Oteiza, and farmers Josette Arrayat and Gerard Bordagaray!
at the Sechoir Collective de la Valle des Aldudes
* ‘Cannibal Ed’ Boden (1981-USVI)