Written by Scott Jones
Photography by Beau Gustafson
In this year’s highly anticipated “What’s Hot” culinary forecast, the National Restaurant Association reported that nationwide, chefs ranked “house-cured meats and charcuterie” as the trendiest appetizer. One need only look at the variety of charcuterie served in restaurants all across Birmingham—from laid-back places to fine dining establishments—to see that chefs and diners alike are embracing this trend with real gusto.
But let me back up for a second. I need to define charcuterie. Steering clear of the weeds here, broadly speaking, it’s meat (not just pork) preserved by salting, drying, or smoking. This includes oft-enjoyed items like ham, sausage, pastrami, prosciutto, and, of course, bacon. Ah, bacon. After experiencing what has to be an unprecedented run as America’s “it” food, the same NRA culinary forecast revealed that bacon fatigue has set in. I wonder how much of this shift is attributed to folks getting hip to the range of flavors and textures charcuterie offers beyond bacon? A bunch, I reckon.
Now to be clear, highly decorated chefs like Frank Stitt and Chris Hastings have made their own charcuterie for years. However, when I see house-cured corned beef at Paramount or house-smoked sausage at Big Bad Breakfast, I take this as a flashing sign that the city’s culinary scene continues to head in the right direction.
Chef James Lewis agrees. “I’ve seen a big change in Birmingham—not only for diners in terms of the types of charcuterie available, but also for chefs and home cooks who have greater access to high-quality meat for making charcuterie,” says the owner of Bettola and Vittoria, the latter of which has a decidedly cured meat focus. Lewis feels like a more adventurous clientele is helping to drive interest as well. “There’s no question customers are more willing to try new things, but it’s also the fact that sharing a platter of salumi [assorted cured meats] is just fun. People love it—the experience and the food,” Lewis says with a smile.
In fact, Vittoria’s salumi are so popular, Lewis plans to soon add a retail area in the restaurant to sell his cured specialties. “There’s no denying charcuterie’s growing popularity, but I don’t think it’s a trend or fad. Bacon, for example, was here long before it gained rock star status and it will be around long after that status is gone,” explains Kyle D’Agostino, an architect and confirmed charcuterie-making junkie. He believes curing meat provides a unique connection to our past and our desire for handcrafted products. “It represents our culture, elicits taste memories, and provokes nostalgia for a time we perceive was much simpler,” he says.
With a family tree that includes butchers and restaurateurs, D’Agostino knows the sheer deliciousness of coppa (salted, air-cured meat from the pig’s neck) and guanciale (cured pork cheeks, sometimes called “Dixie bacon”), and has made both, among others, at home for years. “I started with air-cured meats, which I would hang in the laundry room all winter,” he explains. He eventually found that smoke curing is his sweet spot—everything from tasso and andouille to pastrami and bacon.
Several years back, another local food enthusiast, Ro Cole, had a hard time finding “decent” pancetta (think of it as spiced, unsmoked bacon)—a key ingredient in his much-loved carbonara. Cole couldn’t live without this classic Italian comfort food, so he decided to make his own pancetta. “The process wasn’t that big a deal, but my choice of location for letting the pancetta cure was a disaster,” he says with a chuckle. Thinking he’d found the perfect spot, Cole hung the sizable rolls of tied pork belly from the exposed living room rafters. His wife was not amused: “I realized my wife only likes to eat charcuterie as much as I do. She wanted nothing to do with the making of it.” The pancetta was relocated to the pantry, a “divorce” was averted, and carbonara was served.
Whatever your level of interest in charcuterie—whether making or just eating—the Magic City has ample opportunities to get your cured meat fix. Stay hungry, Birmingham.
“It’s mission critical to cook the pancetta and garlic while the spaghetti boils,” Cole stresses. This ensures the heat of the spaghetti cooks the raw eggs and melts the cheese, creating a rich, creamy sauce. Want the inside scoop on wallet-friendly wines that cozy up to carbonara? Check out jonesisthirsty.com/carbonara.
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 10 minutes
Makes four servings.
4 large farm-fresh eggs
1 cup freshly shredded Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1 (16-oz) package spaghetti noodles
1 tablespoon olive oil
8 ounces pancetta or slab bacon, sliced into small strips
4 cloves garlic, minced
freshly ground black pepper
1. Whisk eggs and cheese together in a large mixing bowl.
2. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, add the pasta, and cook for 8 to 10 minutes or until tender yet firm (what the Italians call al dente). Drain the pasta, reserving about ¾ cup of the cooking water.
3. In the meantime, heat the olive oil in a large skillet or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the pancetta, and cook for about five minutes or until crisp and the fat is rendered. Add the garlic, and cook one minute. Add ¼ cup of the reserved cooking water, scraping up any brown bits in skillet. Add pasta; toss to coat with pan drippings. Remove pan from heat.
4. Pour the egg mixture over the hot pasta; stir constantly until sauce thickens. Thin sauce to desired consistency, if needed, with remaining cooking water. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Top with more cheese, if desired.
Recipe courtesy of Ro Cole