These days, almost everything we eat is processed in one way or another. But in an age of fast-casual burritos, microwavable frozen meals, and delivery pizza, it's nice to see a return to something simpler: hand-preserved food.
Specifically, we're talking charcuterie, the act of drying and curing beef, pork, fowl, and — more recently — even seafood. In the past several years, the craft has seen a renaissance of sorts, part of a nationwide push for a return to basics. Today, foodie cities nationwide are embracing the trend, displaying a renewed interest in what is — at its most simple definition — a basic way to preserve food, revisiting old-world curing methods, unearthing decades-old recipes, and breeding heritage animals. This meat-curing movement has even reached South Florida, reviving the simple act that turns some of the cow's and hog's least desirable parts into some of our most delectable eats.
As casual diners and devoted gastronomes, we see this movement translated via the charcuterie board, those ubiquitous meat and cheese plates served on everything from fancy silver trays to solid blocks of wood. Depending on how it's presented, the versatile charcuterie platter is one of the few dishes that can be appropriate at every level of dining, from the casual gastropub served with a pint of beer to a preamble for a fine meal at one of Europe's most coveted Michelin-starred restaurants.
When done well — as it is at places like the Blind Monk and City Cellar in West Palm Beach or Rebel House in Boca Raton — charcuterie can be sublime in its simplicity. You can eat it by itself, piled atop a crust of bread, or dredged in a swipe of olive oil; if you're the crafty sort, pair each piece with pickled vegetables, preserved fruit, hunks of cheese, or a dab of honey.
Of course, American charcuterie is nothing new, just a revisiting of an age-old culinary art form. In the past, charcuterie — derived from the term "chair-cuit," which translates to cooked meat — was less about high-minded eating and more a practical means of food preservation. This ancient art, the origins of which date back some 6,000 years, began when rudimentary artisans used salt to remove moisture from meat, rendering it edible without spoiling. Eventually, the practice gave way to smoking, poaching, and what most of us do with our meat today — grilling and searing.
Charcuterie is not cooking, however. It's meat alchemy, says Rebel House chef-owner Mike Saperstein, a science that takes an expert level of knowledge, skill, and technique (as well as plenty of time and patience). The process for all dried meats is pretty straightforward: add salt (and nitrate salt) to fresh meat, keep said meat cold (below 39 degrees Fahrenheit), and hang to dry in a moisture-controlled environment anywhere from several weeks to a few months. The result is utterly divine: salty, dried meats in a variety of flavors, textures, shapes, and sizes.
These days, most Americans don't realize foods like bacon, sausage, pâtés, and terrines all have their origins in this culinary craft. Despite the growing trend of charcuterie as a culinary art form, so many are familiar only with cured meats of their childhood: hot dogs, bologna, bacon, and salami. But ask your average diner if he knows the difference between lomo and ndjua or what separates a dry-cured salami from a beautiful saucisson sec and he will most likely give you a blank stare.
Across South Florida, true meat lovers can now find a variety of specialty, imported, and American-made artisanal charcuterie at more than a dozen restaurants in Broward and Palm Beach counties. Several places, including Market 17 and Louie Bossi's Ristorante, are curating their own house-made selections. Feeling fancy? Seafood-focused establishments like Boathouse in Fort Lauderdale are even venturing into the realm of cured fish, delving into the newfangled idea of "seacuterie" — a term coined by PB Catch chef de cuisine Aaron Black.
At Rebel House (297 E. Palmetto Park Road, Boca Raton; 561-353-5888), chef-owner Mike Saperstein and executive sous chef Danielle Herring create a rotating lineup of in-house charcuterie for their boards. They produce everything from a dry-cured capicola to sopresatta flavored with local orange to truffle salami. Their lomo is especially tasty — boneless, center-cut, Danish pork loin often dry-cured with the skin on — rendering it similar to prosciutto but ready in about half the time. Likewise, Market 17 (1850 SE 17th St., Suite 109, Fort Lauderdale; 954-835-5507) executive chef Lauren DeShields has developed a creative charcuterie program that rotates according to season and currently includes offerings like a pickled antelope hot dog, bacon cheddar chive sausage, and Thai red-curry salami. Dry-cured selections deliver a varied lineup of coppa, culatello, fiocco, and guanciale that can be paired with a number of daily cheese selections sourced from states like Vermont, Georgia, and Wisconsin.
Louie Bossi — eponymous chef-partner of Louie Bossi Ristorante (1032 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale; 954-356-6699) — says he's on a mission to bring handcrafted foods to South Florida. In addition to handmade pastas and bread, part of that vision includes an extensive in-house charcuterie program where patrons can sample a variety of house-cured meats. Selections include several types of salami, ranging from truffle tartufo to fennel finocchiona. Having a full-time selection of house charcuterie is a full-time job, but it's one Bossi has been perfecting for the past six years. You can also thank the specialty Stagionello dry-aging machine that allows him to cure up to 100 pounds of meat every 20 days, with rotating selections, displayed on a giant chalkboard, that can be ordered with an assortment of pickled vegetables, imported Italian olives, homemade breadsticks, cheeses, and dried fruits. You can find a similar program at its sister restaurant, City Cellar (700 S. Rosemary Ave., Suite 218, West Palm Beach; 561-366-0071), where executive chef Kevin Darr prepares a number of in-house offerings dry-aged in the meat-curing closet displayed before the open kitchen. On the covered outdoor patio, a wall-sized mirror lists the seasonal cheeses selected as pairings throughout the year, a way to keep your palate piqued for new flavors and textures, no matter the month.
While anyone can slap a few cuts of meat and a block of cheese on a board and call it charcuterie, that doesn't mean you're getting the real deal. The Blind Monk (410 Evernia St., Suite 107, West Palm Beach; 561-833-3605) stays true to its ideal of providing products with integrity. That means cured meats are responsibly sourced from American artisans, using ethically raised or heritage livestock and made using old-world curing methods. Think places like Olli Salumeria in Virginia, which offers an applewood-smoked dry Napoli salami, or Creminelli Fine Meats in Salt Lake City, known for producing mocetta, a paper-thin, air-dried Italian beef. Another key point, says general manager Jason Hunt, is finding unique and varied offerings that rotate with the seasons, selections you'd be hard-pressed to find at your specialty grocer or local butcher. The current menu allows you to take control of your plate, a choice of several meats, cheeses, and accompanying sides like homemade slow-roasted tomatoes, spiced nuts, or port candied figs.
Turns out curing isn't just for meat. Though it's not hard to find a fresh cut of tuna in South Florida, it's not every day that you see it prepared the way you'll find it at Thierry Beaud's PB Catch (251 Sunrise Ave., Palm Beach; 561-655-5558) where chef de cuisine Aaron Black developed his own version of seafood charcuterie dubbed "seacuterie." By experimenting with the curing and smoking process of different fish, Black was able to put Palm Beach on the map for an innovative twist on the classic craft. Offerings change daily, three or six selections that range from cured white tuna and smoked mussel piperade to a scallop-style mortadella and octopus torchon. There's even a monkfish foie gras. Likewise, executive chef Peter Boulukos now delivers a similar take on cured seafood at newly opened Boatyard (1555 SE 17th St., Fort Lauderdale; 954-525-7400). Selections change frequently but currently include a delicate citrus peppercorn swordfish and beet-stained candy cane salmon, served in neat rows on a beautiful block of pink Himalayan salt.
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Fort Lauderdale's Pizzacraft Artisan Pizzeria (330 Himmarshee St., Suite 101, Fort Lauderdale; 954-616-8028) isn't just making pies; it also has a solid cured-meats menu that showcases one of South Florida's local charcuterie purveyors, Miami Smokers (306 NW 27th Ave., Miami; 786-520-5420), which uses heritage breed pigs raised with no antibiotics or hormones and cures and smokes the meat using old-world techniques that rely solely on a precise balance of salt, smoke, temperature, and humidity control. The menu currently highlights a number of products including bacon and pancetta, as well as their own coppa, a fatty cut also known by its southern Italian name of capocollo, which translates to "top of the neck" for where the meat is derived. Order these meats alongside a number of American-made artisan meats, like a 600-day aged De Parma prosciutto or Italian mortadella.
So the next time you dine out, recognize the charcuterie trend for what it is: an expert craft that pays homage to old-world techniques that — when done well — allow us a tremendous assortment of cooked, cured, and stuffed meats good enough to be eaten without a single side or sauce.
Nicole Danna is a food writer covering Broward and Palm Beach counties. To get the latest in food and drink news in South Florida, follow her @SoFloNicole or find her latest food pics on the BPB New Times Food & Drink Instagram.