BY MALU LAMBERT
Photography by C&D Heierli
Neil Jewell is a strong man. He is balancing half a pig on his shoulder. To him it’s like a sack of feathers. With a few large strides he covers the distance of the restaurant, singing as he goes, “He’s not heavy, he’s my supper…”
Margot Janse rolls her eyes at the performance. We’re at the Bread &Wine Restaurant on Môreson wine estate, where Neil is the chef. He is going to teach Margot the ins and outs of charcuterie—she is always open to new learning experiences.
Neil has been working at Bread & Wine for 10 years and loves it. “I made a promise to myself never to go back to the London lifestyle of working 100 hours a week. There’s more to life than being hollered at.”
Neil’s interest in charcuterie grew organically. It was a dream of his to make everything from scratch that is served at a restaurant table. It started with bread baking, and soon went on to curing meat.
“I blame Margot for getting me into charcuterie,” says Neil. “We met in Franschhoek at a chefs’ meeting about 10 years ago. I got a bit drunk and told everyone I could make lamb bacon. The next day I got phone calls asking me how to do it. So I mucked around and came up with a formula for lamb bacon.
“I believe charcuterie is about respect for life,” says Neil. The 13-month-old sow in front of us is on a wide wooden table alongside an armoury of sharp steel knives. “This pig spent her life on a nearby organic farm rooting around for acorns and grapes,” he says. “She was treated with kindness.”
“We also show it respect by using every part of the pig. Nothing goes to waste,” says Margot.
Margot is every bit the diligent pupil. Neil shows her how to remove the leg. We’re making Parma ham. “Does the trotter get left on?” Margot asks.
“Well, the Italians cut it off and the Spaniards leave it on. I prefer to keep it on. I think it looks more charming,” he replies.
Parma ham—a leg of pork cured for months or even years—originates from the Italian province of Parma. Only ham coming from Parma can be called Parma ham. Neil has a solution for this ham bureaucracy, though: Farma ham.
“We cure ham on the bone,” he says. “So we need to take precautions to prevent bone taint. We expose the ball joint by trimming around it. The less knife work we do the better. This lowers the chances of bacteria getting into the cuts.”
Neil balances the leg on a scale. “Why are you doing that?” asks Margot.
“I need to weigh the leg because 30 per cent of the weight needs to be curing salt,” he replies. “In Italy they pack the animal completely in salt. They also cure it at room temperature. But here in South Africa we cure in a fridge as our room temperature is more drastic.”
Neil’s latex-gloved hands are in a mixing bowl of salt. “Make way for Dr. Janse,” Margot says, slipping on a pair of latex gloves. Neil adds pink salt to the white crystals. “Why the pink salt?” Margot asks.
“It’s sodium nitrate. It’s the only chemical 100 per cent proven to kill botulism safely,” Neil answers. “It’ll kill you if you eat it.”
Neil uses around 3g of pink salt in his cure. This small amount will break down safely over time. “The most important parts are between the toes,” says Neil. He pries the pig’s toes apart and rubs them with the cure. “Mould can develop here and spread. Make sure you get into all the nooks.”
After the rubbing is done, Margot packs the leg into a container and covers it with salt and black plastic. “It’s like a spa treatment for pigs,” she says. “Start with a salt rub, do a bit of reflexology and finish it off with a wrap.”
The meat will be left for 24 days, but after three days it will be removed and the liquid drained. The curing is affected by temperature—the warmer it is, the more salt is absorbed.
Now we’re into making bacon. Neil frees a belly cut with his knife. “For streaky bacon you need good hard fat—and you find this fat only in an older pig,” he says. “The bacon found in supermarkets usually comes from three-month-old pigs. They are injected with a concoction of brine, chemicals and hormones. So they grow more quickly, and the meat has more weight. Look out for foam in your pan next time you’re making breakfast. That’s the brine solution being released,” says Neil. “It’s the meat industry’s mission statement to make everything as cheaply as possible, and as quickly as possible. You can buy bacon for around R42 a kilo, but I can’t afford to make it for less than R80 a kilo.”
Margot rubs the cure into the belly cut and covers it. In five days it will be cold smoked and then sliced. All it will then need for a wholesome breakfast is organic eggs.
It’s time to make salami. Neil goes over to the grinder and puts a shoulder cut into it. Before you know it, bright red mince tumbles into a waiting metal bowl. To this Neil adds a cup of Môreson Chardonnay, curing salt, and a starter culture. Margot grates a truffle over the mixture. (They recently smuggled truffles out of Italy, on their way back from a work trip.)
“The sulphur in the wine can react with the nitrate and create a brown mushroom cloud,” says Neil eyeing the bowl warily. No cloud floats out of the bowl this time, only an overwhelming smell.
“It smells like a swimming pool,” says Margot, stepping back. “Like chlorine.” She pours the mixture over the minced meat and starts kneading it.
“The most important part of making salami is the mixing process,” says Neil. “If we don’t mix it enough, niacin—the stuff that binds meat together—bonds too much and the salami will be hard. Mix too little and it will crumble. The meat should stick to your hands like good ciabatta dough.” Neil demonstrates by holding his hand upside down with the salami mixture clinging to it. “Only once our paste is ready do we add fat. We don’t want it to melt.
“Don’t use your palm,” he says to Margot who’s mixing the paste. “Your palm will heat up the fat and melt it.”
“Pass me the Dick,” says Margot to Neil. He brings over the German sausage filler. Indeed, it is called a Dick. One wonders if this is where the slang term originated.
“Press down to remove the air,” Neil instructs Margot, as she loads the mince into the filler. “Air is the enemy.”
“Does mould form in the air pockets?” she asks.
“Yes, but not the type you want,” he replies.
Margot fits a veal intestine over the pipe of the machine. Intestines are usually used for sausage casings; artificial casings can also be used.
Margot turns the handle of the filler. It’s slow going. She looks like she’s arm-wrestling it. The salami coils onto the table like thick rope. It is then divided into sections and tied with string.
Charcuterie is hard work and the team is getting hungry (too hungry to wait six months for the salami). So for the last lesson of the day they make fresh sausages.
Sausage making is almost the same as making salami, except fat isn’t added and the casing—this time pig intestine—is smaller. “I love buchu,” says Margot, adding dried powder to the mix. “I want this sausage to have a bite of fruit and the aromatic freshness of buchu.”
Margot has pre-baked potatoes to smoke them and make mash. Outside at the smoker, Neil puts old brandy-barrel wood chips on the flames and cooks the potatoes on a grid above. The meal is simple—bangers and mash, but mash made from wood-smoked potatoes. The journey it travelled to get on the plate, however, isn’t so simple. Margot and Neil are right. Charcuterie is about respect. This sausage isn’t just supper. It encompasses centuries of curing techniques, a passion for artisan foods, and the 10-year friendship of two dedicated chefs.