A package arrived in the mail today. I had sent it to myself from France and it was full of cans of foie gras, and duck pâté, prune liqueur, and rillettes. But during the two weeks I waited for the box to arrive, I most anticipated finally being able to open up the jars of pork pâté that I had made during my last week in France.
As a kind of final test, Kate, Jonathan and I acquired a half pig from the Chapolards for our final days in Gascony. The Chapolards cut it into thirds for us, we loaded the pieces into plastic bags, then into the back of our tiny white car, and headed home. It was cooler that day than it had been for a week or two, but we were still going to be butchering in less-than-ideal conditions (i.e. without temperature regulation) in Kate’s kitchen, so we were all operating under a certain sense of urgency.
While Jonathan worked on the jambon, I set about cutting up the middle third. Without guidance and under pressure to get everything cut up so none of it went bad, I was a little nervous, and while I removed the ribs and the spine without too much trouble, I also shaved a bit too much off of the main roast. I managed to get the little tenderloins out of the carcass still intact and we cooked them up for lunch, placing them between slices of French bread smothered with hot sauce. But since I didn’t have a skin-removing machine, I probably took too much fat off the belly trying to get the skin off with my knife. Actually, I think all the pieces I cut up had a few extra grams of meat from the other parts located next to them: My ribs were all rib and a little coppa. My coppa was missing part of its side. My belly missed its good friend, pig fat.
When it’s said that someone has “butchered” something other than an animal, when the verb is used in figurative terms, it often implies someone has botched something. In the dictionary it means :
1a: a person who slaughters animals or dresses their flesh b : a dealer in meat
2 : one that kills ruthlessly or brutally
3 : one that bungles or botches
None of these definitions sums up the process of butchery. In fact, butchery is an art. Or at least it should be, though watching supermarket meat counter employees use an electric saw to cut your porkchops hardly counts as art. During my last butchery test in France, I was undoubtedly butchering a pig in the roughest sense of the word, but it was the art of butchery that I held as my standard even if it’s going to take me a little more practice to actually master it. My butchery mentors touched knife to flesh with grace and finesse and speed. It was a choreographed, subtle dance between pig and human. Watching a skilled butcher approach a half pig has given me chills and even once brought me to tears (though I don’t think my butchery mentors saw them). I hope such a sight still will as I try to find my way in the butchery world of Portland, Oregon.
After moving our way through the thirds, it was time to start preserving. I cooked up some North Carolina pulled pork so that Kate would have enough jars to provide her with a taste of summer through the winter months. Kate prepared a deliciously sweet and nutty estouffade–a kind of herbaceous French version of American pulled pork–with herbs from her garden. We also slow-cooked several batches of Jambon de Tonneins, hunks of ham that are cooked in an autoclave with vegetables, spices, wine, and black pepper, and then usually sold geléed in glass jars. We salted the belly and let it cure in the fridge and rolled up the skin to be used for stews and roasts later in the year. And we used any scraps of meat I found to make a lot of pâté spiked with leeks, pepper, salt, and a little red wine.
When the jars of pâté finally arrived in the mail, I opened one to share with Chris, who helped make my trip to France possible in so many ways. I took another to Levi Cole’s house, who, along with Robert Reynolds, originally inspired me–whether they know it or not–to learn how to butcher pigs in France. Watching Robert and Levi spread the rough pâté onto crunchy slices of bread brought me great pleasure. It was the perfect way to thank them. And tonight, I will share the last of the pâté with old friends who have been good to me over the years. We might open a jar of foie gras too, and then grill chorizo that I made on Monday with the help of a new mentor and friend–Mary Gehring. For dessert tonight, we’ll raise glasses of sweet and bracing prune liqueur from Gascony, and toast whatever lies next.