Few things are more beautiful than learning traditional skills lost to our generation because we no longer have the time to spend practicing them. Over the past few months I have made a concerted effort to take in workshops that focus on food preparation techniques such as butchery and mead-making. The sense of accomplishment that I feel from having made my own mead is palpable, and the anticipation of drinking my own mead on the solstice with friends is brilliant. During the previous months, I was able to take butchery classes from The Healthy Butcher, and those classes completely altered how I came to understand both the prep and the cooking of different cuts of meat.
This week found me and two colleagues from school at the Eglinton location of The Healthy Butcher for their introduction to charcuterie. The area of concentration for the class was to explore brining and smoking as ways to both flavour and finish various cuts of meat and fish. Executive butcher, David Meli, was in command of the ship, and I have to admit that he steered us confidently through a myriad of fascinating topics with ease and humour. When you have three teachers from Canada’s most prestigious private school in your audience, and you can sweep us along through the compelling narrative that you weave, then you should be proud of your narrative talent: David has such a talent and gift.
As we moved through the history of brining and smoking, we were also treated to lessons in chemistry and culinary techniques. Our class would follow us through smoking beef, chicken, duck, salmon and pork in an industrial smoker, but we would also come to understand why to smoke food and how it might make use come together with our family and friends. Again, the narrative spoke to me as much as the facts.
Next up was David’s thoughts about brining, when to use it, how to follow through with successful brines, and what the flavour implications would be when applied to various types of meats. Now I had successfully brined both a turkey and pork chops before, but never really thought about it beyond the idea that it kept my portions moist throughout the cooking process. As David explained the chemical breakdown of the process, I began to understand how I will apply all of these techniques when I return home at Christmas. Strangely, I also imagined the wicked smoker that I could build on the property I end up buying on Prince Edward Island this year. The imaginative possibility of harvesting food for preserves and smoking a supply of meat while home in the summertime was profoundly appealing.
The smoking section of the class was no less informative. David spoke about blending apple or cherry woods to hickory or oak. He warned of the temptation to smoke at too high of a temperature, and he backed up his words by providing a large sampling of meats fresh from the smoker to support his dialogue. We began with smoked brisket. Let me begin by asserting that I lived in Montreal for four years and smoked brisket is only perfect there…except if it comes from Dave’s smoker. I had to admit that this was the best brisket I have ever tasted, and that I would have happily run out the door with the entire piece. The flavours were rich, the fat was perfect, and the warmth was comforting.
The beef did take eight hours, so it was prepped before we arrived and finished during the workshop. The meat resonated with a deeper primal love of the campfire and the smokey realness of flesh cooked in this manner. I felt parts of my brain soften as the tastes took over and insisted that I take more than my fair share. The beef was that good.
We then moved along the salmon, which had a poached texture, but tasted fresh and light. Next came pork, with its belly, its loin and a few other options. While I loved the loin, I was not so content with the belly; I prefer deeply braised pork belly, and we just did not have time to prep such a thing in a two hour class.
Final thoughts on the class? I would have stayed all night talking with Dave and the others in attendance, but I had to run to catch Darren Eedens at The Cameron House to capture his show on camera, too. I have another class schedule for February on sausage making, and there might be a chance that I can gain access to other ones by providing an exchange of photography for workshop access, but we will have to see on that front.
The weekend has me sitting in a dental chair for two hours, marking assignments, cleaning the condo, rebuilding my recording studio, photographing an absolutely wicked tomahawk for Base Camp X and maybe catching a show of Estonian dancing on Sunday to photograph the event. Life feels like it is ramping up towards the final days before Christmas holidays, and school will only intensify until one week from now. Life is good, life is great, and I am happy in a way that I could only pretend to imagine before. Game on.