Anyone who has ever traveled in Spain knows that charcuterie, the preparation and cooking of pork products, such as bacon, ham, sausage, terrines, galantines, pâtés, and confit is a huge part of the culture. You can’t walk into a bar or café without seeing smoky hams and sausages hanging from the rafters. And tapas, those small plates sold in bars across Spain, specialize is serving all types of charcuterie. A new book, Charcutería: The Soul of Spain by Jeffrey Weiss captures al the beauty, drama, history, and culture that make charcuterie such a rich and essential part of Spain’s food scene.
Charcutería: The Soul of Spain is more than a cookbook, much more. It is the story of the men and women, the history and techniques behind authentic Spanish meat butchering and meat curing. While other countries, especially places like Italy and France, have long traditions of charcuterie, none is quite like Spanish charcuterie. Jeffrey Weiss, a professional chef who won a prestigious ICEX culinary scholarship that allowed him to live in Spain and learn its culinary traditions and cook with some of the country’s best chefs, thoroughly explores this fascinating topic.
While always interesting, Charcuteria isn’t for everyone, especially anyone who is squeamish about butchery. The book is richly illustrated by photographs by James Beard-nominee Nathan Rawlinson and some of them graphically the killing and rendering of pigs. Interesting for those of us who believe Spanish charcuterie is one of the great culinary traditions of the world, but difficult none-the-less.
Rich History, Great Storytelling
The first part of the book Weiss devotes to the history and traditions surrounding Spanish charcuterie. Weiss isn’t academic about this. He’s a good storyteller and he goes right to the source—a traditional matanza or pig slaughter. Weiss rolls up his sleeves and gets dirty with the butchers (matanceros) and Sabias, the women who handle the making of all the prepared meats. It’s a long, sweaty, difficult, and joyous affair and Weiss helps readers understand not just the mechanics of killing and preparing pig, but the social and spiritual underpinnings of this deep Spanish tradition.
Weiss goes on in the second part of Charcutería: The Soul of Spain to explain how the techniques that make Spanish charcuterie is different than other prepared pork products. He explains, for instance, the differences between knife-cut pig butchery that they use in Spain and saw-cuts used in places like the U.S. He also discusses how different parts of the animals such as the head and jowl are highly prized in Spain. He also talks about different types of Spanish pigs, which are as different as heirloom tomatoes or heritage apples are to their factory farm counterparts.
For those who want to make Spanish charcuteria, the third section of the book is all about tools and techniques. Weiss goes into detail about how to cure meats, make terrines, pates and confits, grind and stuff sausages, and more. And he does it all in such a way that’s approachable and understandable. After reading his section on stuffing sausage, I’m quite certain I could do it.
From Jamón to Postre
The last half of this gorgeous book consists of recipes, beginning with salmueras y salazones or salting and brining. The author gives basic recipes and techniques for salting and brining and then provides clear and easy-to-follow recipes for classic Spanish dishes like preserved pork shank, cured anchovies, and cured egg yolk (with a terrific photo by photographer Nathan Rawlinson). A large portion of the salting/brining chapter is dedicated to Jamon Iberico, the famous preserved Spanish ham. Like in the earlier chapters, author Weiss does more than give us recipes and techniques; he beguiles us with stories about the history of jamon and the people who make it. As if this fine storytelling isn’t enough, Rawlinson aims his sharp eye and camera to the production and serving of this Spanish classic with photos that are mesmerizing and that took me right back to the tapas bars of Spain.
Chapter 5 covers Adobos the classic red meat marinade that contains sweet paprika and the many ways it can be used to create amazing dishes like Cazon en Adobo , a firm white fish; and Moorish-inspired moruna, a combination of onion, olive oil sherry vinegar, and Kosher salt.
The Escabache chapter explores the history and uses of this vinegary marinade that’s been used for centuries to preserve meats and vegetables. I especially loved the Perdiz en Escaveche, or Partridge in Escabache, which is an amazingly delicate and beautiful dish. The recipe for Mussels in Escapache combines the brininess of mussels with the spicy vinegary liquid full of garlic, citrus, and pimento.
Conservas y Confits covers canning, especially foods like seafood and vegetables and confit, curing, cooking and then aging proteins in a layer of their own fat. Embutidos or sausage making is an especially fun chapter filled with beautiful and illustrative photos. The author explores the range of making Spanish sausages from fresh chorizo little known Spanish delicacies like Butiffarra Dulce or sausage made with honey, lemon and cinnamon (a specialty of the Catalan town of Girona). Once you’ve mastered the sausage making techniques, you can move onto traditional and modern recipes such as sausage and beans, canelone crepes, and Trinxat, a local cabbage dish.
There’s also an entire section on chorizo, what Weiss calls “the first state of the holy charcutería cross.” Anyone who has enjoyed Spanish chorizo completely understands his sentiments. He covers chorizo in all its wonderful regional differences from Pamplona-style to Asturian chorizo.
And, after all that meat, it’s fitting to have a chapter, guarniciónes y salsas, on pickled veggies. This includes everything from olives and peppers to pickled garlic, eggplant, and even quail eggs, and marmalades made from tomatoes, pumpkin, and onion. The final chapter of Charcutería: The Soul of Spain includes desserts and liqueurs such as delicate lemon cookies, fruit crepes with pork blood, and even chocolate “sausage.”
The author ends this big book with a list of purveyors, Spanish culinary tours, restaurants/markets, and a helpful a glossary and index.
Real Bottom Line: By the time I finished Charcutería: The Soul of Spain, I felt stuffed, exhausted and exhilarated. The book took me right back to all those fabulous tapas bars with their exquisite charcutería. This big book is a mammoth piece of work that thoroughly examines the rich and colorful world of Spanish charcuteríe It’s a book that will thrill and educate those who are really into prepared and preserved meats. I know there are several techniques and recipes I can’t wait to try. — Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor