"Hold the knife like you're about to stab somebody."
James Naquin calmly wraps his fingers over a knife handle, gliding the blade beneath the shoulder blade of a hunk of pork. His cuts are concentrated yet look effortless, especially for someone who just learned the art of seam butchery a few months ago.
"You see how high that angle is? The bone drops. So you drag the tip around, right across the edge of the bone," he says. "And I'll tell you like I tell everyone else who's learning: You can't mess up, because it's all gonna go in the grinder anyway. Now follow it all the way to the other end ..."
It's 9 a.m. on a Monday in the Guglhupf restaurant kitchen as Naquin begins a three-hour process to prepare fat links of bratwurst. "I did about 40 batches of bratwurst before I got it to where I wanted it," he reveals later. "It's not about perfection, it's about an ideal."
A year ago, Naquin, a longtime chef, became the official in-house charcuterie chef at the German-themed restaurant. Under the encouragement of chef Dave Alworth, Naquin dedicated himself to the tradition of preparing fresh sausages, pâtés and smoked artisanal meats. He estimates he made 4,000 pounds—two tons—of sausage for the restaurant last year.
But the regulations, or the lack thereof, governing the curing and smoking of meats have stifled butchers and charcuterie chefs in North Carolina.
While charcuterie is established in big food cities across the nation, there's a growing need for food safety regulators and health inspectors to learn the science behind it. In North Carolina, that is a very gray area. We are getting only smidgen of what true charcuterie tastes like because regulations are vague and often inconsistent. For example, it's legal for pastrami to be kept in brine if it's constantly refrigerated. But it is illegal to use traditional methods of curing salami, such as keeping it for months at room temperature in a humidity-controlled basement.
Casey McKissick, program coordinator for N.C. Choices, which advocates for the state's small meat producers and buyers, says interest in artisanal meats is growing, particularly in Durham, where two new butcher shops, Rose's Meat Market and Sweet Shop and Bull City Butchery, are opening.
However, these businesses face a maze of regulations set by different agencies. The state Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services oversees processors and wholesale businesses; the state Division of Environmental Health inspects restaurants and retail shops.
"It depends on who you talk to, you get different answers in this business and you get a lot of passing the buck," McKissick says. "It's confusing, and most people that work in this business don't understand it. We have to educate and do research. Part of that is putting real science to it so everyone can understand what's safe and what's not safe."
On Sept. 1, North Carolina will adopt the 2009 FDA Food Code, says Larry Michael, head of the Food Protection Program with the N.C. Division of Public Health, although it is not yet public information.
Michael confirmed that current regulations are unclear on charcuterie, though the new regulations "do have an allowance for specialized processes as long as they prove that it's done safely."
"I think the new regulations we'll have will help, and this new code will open the door to do things they haven't been able to do," Michael says. "The food service industry has been at the table."
Roberto Copa Matos, owner and chef at Old Havana Sandwich Shop, wanted to cure his own ham but couldn't find any documentation on how to comply with the law. So he called Division of Environmental Health officials in Durham County and, with the help of a patient inspector, found a legal way for him to make cured lomo. He purchased whole hogs from a farmer and used the collar muscle as his piece for salt-cured ham. To prepare it legally, he kept the ham in the refrigerator at under 45 degrees for the two months that it cured.
"I want to go back to doing it the way we did hundreds of years ago," Matos says. "You planned when you were going to kill your animals. And you did it just before winter, so you had that season to do your entire curing process through the beginning of spring. So by the time summer comes, your meat is well cured and it doesn't need any more refrigeration. I think it's a very sustainable process: Hang it in the kitchen without having to pay for equipment, refrigeration and electricity. Which is the way it has always been done."
Farmers are also experimenting with charcuterie. They can slaughter their own poultry on-site and sell related products, such as chicken salad. But they can't do the same with pork, lamb, beef or goat.
"You can kill that chicken in your farm under the shade outside and cook it in your kitchen. Then mix it with mayonnaise and take it out to a tailgate market and sell that legally," says McKissick. "But mishandled poultry can be more dangerous than beef."
"Don't try to apply any logic to any of this," McKissick continues. "These regulations were built upon the paradigm we've been accustomed to for the past 30 to 40 years, that all of our food is processed by a few companies. As we go back to decentralizing and butcher shops, and these guys want to do thousand-year-old recipes, all of a sudden there are these regulations."
Fresh sausages sold to stores and direct to consumers also must be inspected daily by the state agriculture department. This is why most packages are labeled with the name of the processing facility, like the popular Acre Station Meat Farm Inc. in Pinetown. That step also adds another cost to the process. Centralizing the processing also removes the artistry from meat curing and preparation.
"All the sausage in this area, it's all the same recipe made in the same damn place," says Justin Meddis of Rose's Meat Market. To help start the business with his wife, Katie, they have hosted butchery classes and whole-chicken dinners throughout the Triangle. He compares the burgeoning charcuterie trend with the organic movement of the 1970s: once thought esoteric, but now quite common. "That's a way for us getting away from people buying pre-cut, cellophane-wrapped pork chops at the grocery shop."
Back at Guglhupf, Naquin continues making his three-hour bratwurst while the sausage making of state food laws continues and his private stash of capicollo ages for months at home.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Meat wave."