Yesterday I spent all day in the expert hands of the Chapolard family. The four brothers and their wives (and now a couple of kids) all work together on the farm that their father started, raising pigs and turning them into superb meat and superlative charcuterie that supports all of them with a dignified living: true sustainability. The two kids have started a dairy on the property, with about fifty head of cattle, and they produce raw milk, yogurt, and some cheese. The rest of the operation is all pork, all the time, and I was honored to don a work smock, apron, and boots and spend a day learning from their expertise, passion, and hard work.
To begin, Kate gave me a tour of the farm. They slaughter about 10 pigs a week, and the animals are taken at about a year of age, which is quite a lot older than pigs in the US, even well-raised ones. This is a pattern I have seen elsewhere in France; I met a butcher today who kills his cows at between four and five years old. The meat is incomparably dark and flavorful. The pigs chez Chapolard are penned; the ubiquity of wild boars outside means that disease and uncontrolled impregnation pose too great a threat to pastured swine. Their pens are large, though, and open-sided, and they are required by law to have copious straw to play and burrow in, and they are happy and healthy. They rush over to crowd around visitors, grunting and thrusting their noses between the bars for a head scratch. They are fed a mixture of grains and soy, all of which except the soy is grown right on the farm. The Chapolards are currently experimenting with a kind of fava bean suited to animal feed which, if it works, will mean that their farm is completely autonomous, requiring nothing at all from outside to sustain their operation.
Hang out with that idea for a minute before you continue.
Dominique, pictured above, is the eldest of the four brothers. He’s the de facto leader, though they all have equal shares in the business. They divide their labor; each has a particular area of responsibility so that the animal husbandry, the agriculture, the butchery, and the charcuterie are all attended to diligently. Bruno is the only other brother I spent any time with, since on Tuesdays he is in the butchery helping to break down animals for the week. They have a very tightly choreographed rhythm to the week, so that each day follows a very predictable schedule based on the slaughter, fabrication, and weekly markets that make up both ends of their livelihood. It also means that the butchery remains empty, clean, and dry for two two-day periods every week, dramatically reducing microbial populations and cutting back severely on their need for chemical disinfectants. It’s a form of passive hygiene that fits nicely with their model for efficiency and sustainability.
When we arrived, they were already at work. Christiane, Dominique’s wife, was working with Marjorie to make sausages both fresh and dried. The fresh, mostly chipolata, are for grilling or pan-frying, and they make several kinds of dried: chorizo, saucisson sec, and saucisse sèche, as well as noix de jambon, paté de campagne and head cheese.
The ground meat (ground from all the trimmings left after butchery) is worked in a mixer with salt and pepper–nothing more–and then hand-kneaded to remove any air.
It’s exactly like wedging clay. I must say that it was a revelation to see cured ground meat products being made with no nitrites or nitrates; it’s common, completely legal, and contrary to everything that paranoid, lawyer-cautioned books on the subject in the States say is inviolable law.
These balls of meat are then fed into the hydraulic stuffer, which is operated by a plate one pushes with the knee, leaving both hands free: a nifty idea for anyone who has tried to do this solo. Marjorie stuffs the links–the casings are pre-cut and knotted at one end–and Christiane ties them off in pairs so they can hand from the rods in the fermentation chamber and later in the aging room.
They make something like 35 kilos (nearly 75 pounds) a week. The fermentation chamber is computer-controlled to mimic the humidity and temperature changes of a barn in the mountains where all of this magic was discovered.
Down here in the lowlands it gets too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter to do this reliably all year long. Remember that there are no bacterial cultures whatever added to this meat, as well as no nitrites or nitrates. Pork, salt, and pepper are it, with the last two at 14 grams and 2 grams respectively per kilo of meat for fresh sausages and 3 percent by weight for cured ones. Dominique believes firmly in tasting the pork, not the seasonings, and all of their products are masterpieces of this proud understatement.
The aging room is also kept at a precise temperature and humidity, though much cooler than the fermentation chamber. The purple is from a bug zapper. While they wash the floors in here, they try never to wash the walls, and if they do, they never wash the wooden racks; in this way the initial inoculation continues to prosper and impart “la fleur” (the powdery white mold) to every batch. Local tastes run towards young sausage, so many of these are sold at only a week old. Kate pointed out that for many people it’s like buying wine; they pick one up at the market and then hang it at home until it is the way they like it.
Dominique asked us to help him with the head cheese, something else they make weekly as part of their nose to tail usage. He led us into the back, past the frigid walk-in butchery, to a warm room where a huge propane-fired tureen had been cooking heads for hours already, along with carrots, onions, and a branch of bay leaves. He poured off some of the stock and reduced it on a burner to help the terrines gel properly. Along with the heads, he also throws a few feet in for extra gelatin. He confessed that they do pour out the bulk of this pork stock, since there just isn’t a market for it.
The temperature differential between the hot liquid and the much cooler air filled the room with clouds of porky steam. We pulled apart the heads and feet, making sure to get all the bones, teeth, and tendons out before chopping the rest and packing it into molds and then topping it with reduced stock.
This work has to be done hot, or else everything becomes a sticky mess. Then he puts the terrines into an oven until they begin boiling, at which point he puts them into a freezer to chill and gel them. They will go to the market the next day.
Bruno is a zen monk of butchery. With his beard, his quiet smile, and the hood of his work shirt looking very cowl-like, it’s easy to imagine him feeling right at home in the Gascony of a thousand years ago. He uses gravity to butcher, cutting pieces off hanging carcasses with a quick sawing and then the gentle persuasion of the small, razor-sharp knives they use. Then he breaks them down with precision; he elbowed me to make sure I watched him joint a leg with his little knife, flicking it in and out to pop the foot off the hock and then the hock off the ham, in contrast to Dominique’s use of the hack saw. I enjoyed listening to each of them justify his technique to me, with much knowing laughter. On the drive back from lunch, Dominique told me they hired a psychologist to help the four of them work together smoothly. It shows in the gentle and harmonious way the operation functions.
Lunch was at Dominique and Christiane’s house, and they made us a feast. We began with this plate of all their products: pâté in the center, noix de jambon at the top, and saucisse, boudin noir, and chorizo clockwise from there. Right after that we had the last of their boudin blancs, which they make for Christmas, then salad, and then roasted potatoes and shoulder chops from their pork. Grilled lightly to a nice pink, and with no salt or pepper, they were a revelation: full-flavored, juicy, and wanting nothing. More farmers in the States should age their animals longer. We talked at length about sustainable agriculture models here and back in the US. It stretched my French, since this is not vocabulary I know well, but we covered some ground. They also gave me a couple of bottles of wine as a gift, calling me “Le Winner,” as if spending the day with them wasn’t gift enough.
After lunch I broke down some hams into noix de jambon and salted them, along with some ventrèche (unsmoked cured belly), and helped Dominique load up the trailer for the next day’s market in Laverac.
After he finished with the trailer, plugging it in to keep it cold all night, he showed me their smoking and aging facility, which consists of two old rooms in the large house where his parents still live. Far apart from each other, and utterly ancient, these dusty old spaces haven’t been lived in for decades. The smoking room has a big old-fashioned fireplace where he hangs sausages from nails over a small, smoky fire of oak sawdust for a day or two. Smoke is a lightly used flavor in these parts, and they make sure you know it. The aging room is upstairs, through about six doors–which all need to be kept closed to insulate the room–and still has some dust-obscured furniture in it. There is a long row of nails along a beam, and a small ladder, and this is where the meat dries for a week or longer until it is ready for market. That picture way up at the top is Dominique carrying out the stuff that was ready to sell today.
We stopped by to see them there this morning, so that’s where the tale will pick up in tomorrow’s post, along with an excellent picnic, foie gras galore, cassoulet from scratch, and bad taxidermy. A dream vacation, non?