The Underground Cure

Pasture to Plate

The Underground Cure

By Erik Ness | Photo By Erik Ness 0

“This was supposed to be our day of not much going on,” laughs Jerry Traczyk. That was before the goats came, seven of them, on the heels of a busy weekend of breaking down 2,500 pounds of hogs into more manageable loins and shoulders and bacon. He’s used to busy, but with a new butcher shop opening on Williamson Street, the Underground Food Collective was looking to set the bar even higher. There is only one thing for the charcuterie master to do: make more salami.

And now three knives are slicing, paring, flensing to the beats of Outkast and the Beastie Boys. Sixty pounds of goat are already on ice, and Jerry’s weighing out spices and reviving the yeast.

Underground Meat’s goat salami is one of their more popular products, a marriage of old world charcuterie and the local food movement. Underground has a long and well-known love affair with fine pork and its charismatic local producers, but one day a dairy farmer mentioned to Underground’s Jonny Hunter that he had some surplus male goats. While goat may be the world’s most popular meat, U.S. consumers are not yet convinced. Goat milk has high value for cheese, but male goats were a burden. Could Underground help?

Underground had already applied for a development grant from the Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin program of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. With help from this two-year, $25,000 starter grant, they wanted to explore artisanal techniques of salting, smoking, and curing meats. Recruiting Jerry from the Goodman Center, they bought some used equipment, built a cure box, and got started.

First came a crash course in food safety protocols, and learning how to secure state licensing. The meat was easy. “I know the farm where the animals came from,” says Jerry “I know which breed. I can probably guess the tag number within 60.” These animals—heritage hogs such as Tamworth and Berkshire—are the foundation. “You want that to be the standout flavor with just notes of seasonings.”

The more unusual ingredients were a little harder, but before long they had casing, curing salts, yeast, and molds. Then the experiments began. They could find recipes, but getting the right ratios and cultures proved challenging. A recipe might call for starter culture or sugar, but what kind, and how much? And when’s the best time to add the wine?

Curing and drying meat in the old world style is a collaborative effort between humans and microorganisms—these are what separate a brat from a saucisson sec.

Through trial and error and ever more research, Jerry began to figure it out. The yeast needs to be properly roused, and prefers distilled water. It dines on sugar—dextrose, to be precise—producing lactic acid that tightens up the muscle fibers and drops the pH, driving undesirable microorganisms out.

But it wasn’t until he mastered the mold that the salami really clicked. The mold is multi-purpose, keeping out harmful growth, balancing the acidity, evening out the drying. Curing mold needs 12 hours to proof, and is sprayed on the freshly stuffed sausage after it’s been hanging in the fermentation box—Jerry sets his alarm for some uncomfortable hours in order to get the inoculation right.

Jerry is a long way now from his home of Mellen, Wisconsin, but he remembers when he was 12 years old and just starting to hunt. He learned to process deer in his grandfather’s garage, then in the kitchen with hand-crank grinders. They made sausage to help preserve the meat that wouldn’t fit in the freezer. “I thought it was kind of gross when I was young,” he admits. Now he looks around the Underground facility and feels a kinship. “It brings me back to being in my grandfather’s kitchen with all the guys from the hunting shack, drinking beer and making sausage.”

Except for the pace. In the beginning it was driven by experimentation; they processed perhaps ten hogs in six months. Now, they may process 20 in one week alone—four times the volume of last year. And a few days ago, when a production-size sausage stuffer showed up in Chicago on Craigslist, they snatched it up.

“Everything we have hanging is sold right now. Is this an exponential curve and we’re down here?” says Jerry, drawing an imaginary line in the air and stabbing incredulously at the bottom. “What am I getting myself into?”

That old saw about the making of sausage and politics? Forget about it. They’re just trying to scare you away from the good stuff. Try the goat salami—you’ll understand.

Erik Ness has been writing about science, health, and the environment for more than two decades for publications as diverse as The Nation, Discover, and Prevention. He’s a newbie to food writing, but not the food movement -- he shone an early spotlight on Dane County community supported agriculture (CSAs) in 1997 in the Isthmus. This is his first piece for Edible Madison.

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