El Salchichero delivers a passionate mix of meaty, mouthwatering adventures
The first rule of Pork Club is: you do not talk about Pork Club, at least not to your vegetarian friends. Held after dark at one end of the Westside Swift Street Courtyard complex, the classes at El Salchichero have the feeling of clandestine meetings.
I expected a guy in a trench coat to float out of the shadows and ask: “Psst, hey kid,wanna buy some bacon?”
Some of us were nervous about butchering a pig in the tofu capital of the western world. The karma police at the yoga studio next door might catch a glimpse of our faces as we duck into the meaty oasis of butchery. Fear quickly dissolves like lard in a hot skillet, once you’re back behind the counter with a glass of wine in your hand and a creamy slice of pancetta massaging your tongue.
This was my second class with proprietor Chris LaVeque and head butcher Ren Hogue. The first one had my hands working salt into bacon and grinding out sausage. Tonight our subject hung before us in regal cleaved glory, a whole hog (actually half a whole hog) awaiting tender ministration by these passionate artisans.
This week’s Pork Club members included homesteaders and farmers with dreams of home-grown cured meats, two father-son culinary teams, local foodies, and a few food professionals. Some admitted their love of pork like a secret fetish, others were considering bacon tattoo options for their foreheads. We all knew we had found a home away from home: Pork Club—a.k.a. El Sachichero’s Whole Hog butchery class.
After introductions, Ren shared their culinary philosophy: quality before profit. Quality of meat is derived from the quality of the life of the animal, as well as the quality of attention and skill provided by the butchers. The crew at El Salchichero serves up only free-range livestock well cared for by the ranchers who raised them. After a moment of hearing them talk about their craft, it’s obvious they have a sincere respect for the animals they transform into prime cuts and knee-weakening cured meats.
An easy banter percolated as we circled around the night’s main attraction. Chris started by breaking down the carcass into prime pieces, sliding his knife through tissue like a wizard casting spells with his wand. Ren discussed the various cuts, their value and best preparation method. Nothing is ever wasted. “That’s one of the amazing things about pigs,” Ren pointed out. “Nearly everything on a pig can be made into food.”
Thick layers of pure fat contrasted pink meat that glowed with health. It’s hard to describe to non-meat-lovers what it feels like to stand before such an epic example of pork perfection. I might call it a religious experience if religions included lots of crispy bacon. Let’s just say a certain reverential bliss spreads throughout you as you reflect upon the many days of pork-heaven that lie before you.
The art of butchery is much more than just cutting up meat—a local butcher is the arbitrator between the rancher and their community. Before the FDA we relied on our butchers to acquire and prepare wholesome meat. I suspect many of us older omnivores miss the personal touch our neighborhood butchers used to bring to their art. A good butcher protects the health and well-being of their community, not to mention crafting food that nourishes and encourages us to celebrate life.
The two-hour class revealed new cuts, old favorites, and the many challenges facing would-be home butchers like me. Hang time, storage, equipment, attention to glands and tough tissue all came up within the context of proper care of harvested meat. Though this is not a hands-on class (serving novice butchers wine and then handing them really sharp knives is probably not a good idea), I still walked away with a feel for the work involved in transforming a large animal into a tremendous source of nourishment and pleasure.
You always leave the Pork Club with a bag of goodies. That night’s treasures included the best pork chops I have ever eaten, and chicharrón that taught me why people eat deep fried pork skin. These have as much in common with store-bought pork rinds as a glass of wine has with a bowl of raisins. As I write this my 4-year-old stands victorious on the kitchen counter after climbing up to swipe his second post-breakfast chicharrón. A new Pork Club member is born.
El Salchichero, 402 Ingalls St., Suite 5, Santa Cruz 423-6328, elsalchichero.com. Open Tues-Sun 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. (closed Mon).