There's something about the very word charcuterie that sounds like you're in for a treat. The "sh" at the start of it almost indicates there's something secret to be shared. The way your mouth puckers on the "koo" sound in the middle of the word invokes a kiss — or a surprise. The uplift your voice takes on the "ree" as you end the word is playful, fun, an expression of happy.
And happy is what happens when you talk to people who love this style of meat. Generally, charcuterie refers to a set of prepared meats such as bacon, sausage, pates and terrines made from pork, dishes developed as a way to preserve meat before refrigeration. It's a culinary tradition that stretches back millennia, and evolving from a way to keep pork from going bad to a must-have course on a restaurant table. A dish that manages to be both Old World and a chic choice for the table.
Here in Houston, you can find charcuterie plates all over town — often with a combination of imported and in-house selections. We reached out to the chefs who did it themselves and find out what made this culinary choice so special to them. Because creating charcturie isn't just about knowing how to make it, it's about why you do it in the first place.
"For us, it was just obvious," says Chris Shepherd, the Houston powerhouse behind Underbelly, and a proponent to so-called tip-to-tale cuisine. "Our focus was on the whole animal." Underbelly's charcuterie offerings pay homage to that philosophy and provide an ever-changing set of meats for diners to sample. That, too, is in keeping with Underbelly's commitment to serving what's fresh and what's available, but it's also the nature of the charcuterie beast: when you have to age meats, there's no way you're able to serve something on demand.
At press time, Shepherd was doing a bresaola from eye of round. The air-dried, cured beef selection is made up with Shepherd's blend of fall spices, star anise and garlic powder. Selections also include a mortadella and summer sausage. They're all made in house - and you can see the results waiting to be ready for you through the window of the drying room.
"You gotta be down for doing this," Shepherd says about the process of butchering, curing, seasoning and ageing the meats. "There's a lot of money tied up in the drying room. This stuff has to age. It has to be ready."
That's the thing about charcuterie. You can't rush the process. And those that make the stuff have an almost reverent tone toward how it all comes about.
"It is Old World," says Andrew Vaserfirer, Revival Market's head butcher and charcutier, who studied the art of it in Italy. "And it's a skill. There's a real passion that people who do this have, they want to share these traditions and bring them to new generations." Vaserfirer offers up prosciutto and coppa, among a number of changing selections.
"Charcuterie takes a lot of skill - it's a true art," says Ben McPhearson of Prohibition Supperclub and Bar, which recently hosted a whole dinner devoted to charcuterie. "Think about where we are in food today," "We love salty, fatty things. A good coppa is almost addictive. And who doesn't love a good prosciutto?"
Chef Paul Lewis of Paul's Kitchen in Upper Kirby, which offers a charcuterie plate that's a combination of salami, terrine and chicken liver mousse, agrees, and expands on the idea of charcuterie's Old World appeal.
"There's been a shift, over the last five years of so, from modern cookery to an older, more traditional style of preparing food."
Lewis does all of his own bacon in-house, and makes three salamis and pepperonis, one of which is a traditional offering with flavors of red wine, salt and pepper. "It's a labor of love," he says of making the dishes.
And those labors are all ready for Houston diners to sample.