Charcuterie Gains Popularity in Old City

Instead of cocktails, try cured and brined meats next time you visit the neighborhood.

By Dan Packel
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted May. 29, 2009

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Pleased to meat you: Mike O’Halloran at Bistro 7 uses local ingredients in his charcuterie.

Photo by Michael Persico

On a warm early summer night, I found myself in Old City. No, I wasn’t sipping cocktails at one of the interchangeable sidewalk cafes on Market Street. That would’ve been a waste of my time, considering another less visible, yet infinitely more appealing trend is taking root in the neighborhood: careful attention to the art of curing meat.

With little fanfare, a nexus of charcuterie has emerged around Third and Market. Just as Ninth and Wharton is the place (for out-of-towners) to get cheesesteaks, and my own West Philly neighborhood has Dungeness crab locked down, look to oldest precincts of our city for pates, terrines and duck prosciutto.

A little background: Charcuterie is the branch of cooking dedicated to preserving meat products through curing, brining or the creation of forcemeats (preparations involving emulsifying ground lean meat with fat). The pig is traditionally the star of all forms of charcuterie, although duck, chicken, beef and even wild boar are known to make appearances.

These preparations are also a boon to chefs looking to take advantage of locally raised animals. Strike up an arrangement with a local farmer or processor to get a whole pig, and the haunches can go into prosciutto, loins can go to lomo (dry-cured tenderloin), and the shoulders to coppa (another dry cure). Meanwhile, other, less glamorous parts of the animal can wind up in cooked products like pates (often home to liver), rillettes (pork) and headcheese (self-explanatory).

The newest arrival to the area, cementing Old City as a charcuterie destination, is Nick Macri at the Beneluxx Tasting Room (33 S. Third St.). Established in the kitchen at Beneluxx for just shy of a month, Macri is already turning out country pate, chicken liver parfait, duck prosciutto, pork rillettes and wet-cured ham, part of a platter that’s the perfect partner for an earthy, spicy Belgian dubbel.

Growing up in Toronto, Macri’s father and uncle would split a pig every year, providing his foundational experience with curing and preparing meats. In Philadelphia, time in the kitchen at Marc Vetri’s Osteria offered practice these adapting techniques to the environment of a hectic restaurant.

Then Beneluxx offered the opportunity to focus. “Most places, charcuterie is only 10 percent of the job,” says Macri. “Here it’s 90 percent. That’s why I took the job.” As a result, look for an expansion in his offerings, once a space in the front of Beneluxx’s dining room gets converted into a case to be used for dry curing. Eventually, lomo, sopressata, and bresciola should be joining the menu, but, unlike the cooked products, these dry cures take time.

Around the corner at Fork (306 Market St.), Terence Feury is aware of how consuming these efforts can be, as he entrusts the charcuterie program to sous-chef Andrew Wood, while he oversees a kitchen that has gathered accolade after accolade since his arrival on February 1.

“I’ve done the whole pig thing myself too,” says Feury. “But I just don’t have the time now.” Instead, it falls on Wood to do admirable work with the locally sourced meats. A recent charcuterie platter featured a pot of decadent, rich duck and pork rillettes, the chopped meat salted thoroughly and slow cooked in fat. Spread on the house-made croustade, they finished first, though not by much, in front of the headcheese and the Cervalas de Lyon (a Spanish-style pork sausage made with garlic and pistachio).

And there’s more. Talk of smoked beef tongue and Iberian-style ham (cured with the hoof on), unavailable on my last visit, is enough to have me plotting my return.

Bistro 7 (7 N. Third St.), Chef Michael O’Halloran’s BYOB, emphasizes local, organic ingredients, which means the sources for much of his charcuterie are also nearby. So, the country-style pork terrine features pork from Green Meadow Farm in Lancaster County, and the duck liver mousse relies upon duck from Pennsylvania’s Joe Jurgielewicz and Son.

The latter item, for O’Halloran, illustrates the personal appeal of charcuterie. “It’s classic bistro cooking,” he says. “Terrines are about turning the toss-away cuts of an animal into something palatable. Duck liver is overlooked because of the fanfare around foie gras” But by putting the duck liver though a series of increasingly fine mesh chamois before cooking in a terrine, O’Halloran succeeds in duplicating the texture of foie gras, but gaining even more flavor. “It’s turning something from scrap into something special,” he concludes.

After a sweep of the charcuterie options in this small patch of turf, I’d find it hard to disagree. More scraps please.

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