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Vermont Cured Meat Entrepreneurs Do It Euro-Style

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Erika Lynch with her slow-cured salami - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-brodeur
  • Erika Lynch with her slow-cured salami

What isn't better with a little bit of bacon? Strips of cured and smoked pork belly show up on nearly every restaurant menu: in breakfast sandwiches, as a crunchy topping on burgers and as a necessary ingredient in pasta carbonara. Over the last few years, bacon — sometimes called "the gateway meat" for its ability to tempt vegetarians back to flesh — has even made its way into cocktails, candies and chocolate desserts.

While nearly everyone is familiar with bacon, not everyone knows that it — and its first cousin, ham — are examples of charcuterie. The French term sounds fancy, but it refers to something elemental: meats that are preserved so that they will store better. Some kinds of charcuterie can last for weeks or months; others, such as jerky, have an almost indefinite shelf life.

There are many ways to prevent flesh from spoiling. Strips or hunks can be dried in the sun or smoked over flavorful woods. They can be salted or brined and hung in a cool place until somewhat desiccated. They can be cooked slowly in fat until tender and then packed away in crocks to be kept in a root cellar or other cool place. Nearly every culture has its own recipes for these types of long-lasting and delicious meats.

After getting burned out on a teaching job, Erika Lynch, owner of a Waitsfield business called Babette's Table, became interested in curing. The Kentucky native packed up and headed to Gascony, France, with her partner and their two children to study classic French technique with master butchers Kate Hill and Dominique Chapolard. Today, less than a year after starting her business, Lynch's line of cured meats is Vermont's most extensive.

Plenty of fine-dining establishments do their own preserving and offer charcuterie-board appetizers. Other businesses — including Vermont Smoke & Cure, McKenzie, and Harrington's of Vermont — turn out thousands of pounds of bacon, ham and summer sausage each year.

However, just a few commercial meat-curing operations in the state offer dry-cured products made using traditional European techniques, in part because of the legal hurdles involved in making and selling such goods. (Cooked products, such as pâté and confit, and fresh and smoked meats that will be cooked before eating, such as sausage, ham and bacon, are governed by a different set of regulations.)

Because certain cured-meat products hang out in the so-called food-safety "danger zone" as they age, sometimes for months, they are considered potentially hazardous. If not made correctly, they can harbor pathogenic bacteria. Therefore, dry-cured products can't be produced for retail sale without something called a HACCP plan.

HACCP — which stands for "hazard analysis and critical control points" — was developed by NASA in the 1960s and is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It can cost between $5,000 and $15,000 to create and receive approval for a workable plan for a single type of product. That's a high bar for a new business and is most likely the reason why, until recently, no Vermonters were legally making and selling prosciutto, coppa or country ham.

Peter Roscini Colman, owner of Plainfield's Vermont Salumi, believes he was the first Vermonter to receive approval for a HACCP plan for cured salami, in 2013. Since then, he has produced pepper, chorizo, fennel, and red-wine-and-garlic salami at the Mad River Food Hub in Waitsfield. He also makes fresh products and a cured and cooked ham called prosciutto cotto.

Like the Vermont Food Venture Center in Hardwick, the Food Hub is an inspected and licensed food-processing facility that lets businesses rent its equipment and storage space. Allowing businesses to share bulky and expensive apparatus — and offering training on how to use them — makes the economics of a value-added operation more feasible.

At these facilities, farms and artisan food businesses make products including soup, salsa, pet food, bean patties and booze. The Food Hub offers everything needed for curing meat. There, in addition to Colman, brothers Jacob and Justin Finsen of Artisan Meats of Vermont make salami — chorizo, a saucisson sec called Joan of Arc, and a hard salami dubbed Cicero — as well as fresh meat products.

Lynch, who started Babette's Table in May 2017, also makes her products at the Food Hub. She purchases most of her pork — approximately 24 back legs and a few shoulders and loins per month in winter — from the nearby von Trapp Farmstead and from Sugar Mountain Farm in West Topsham. In summer, when she has more sales outlets, she buys about three whole pigs a week.

Erika Lynch cutting her slow-cured salami - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-brodeur
  • Erika Lynch cutting her slow-cured salami

Lynch says that Robin Morris, who runs the Food Hub and helped her develop HACCP plans for whole-muscle products, such as coppa and lomo, has been an invaluable help. "He's been a fantastic resource," she explained. "He's really helped incubate my business, which is what the food hub is meant to do."

Morris is also responsible for the Mad River Taste Place, an elegant food shop located in a former bank just off Route 100 in Waitsfield. There, nearly every Vermont-made cheese is for sale. There's a cold room for storing six-packs and other perishable products, and visitors can stock up on bread, chocolate, honey and maple syrup. Lynch, the Finsen brothers and Colman sell products there.

What sets the Taste Place apart from many gourmet shops, though, is its elegant décor, culinary-school-educated staff, reasonably priced cheese and charcuterie boards, and beverage offerings, including French-pressed coffee, pints of beer, and flights of wine or cider.

Aside from the Waitsfield Farmers Market, which doesn't operate during the winter, the Taste Place is Lynch's main retail outlet, although she's poised to start supplying a few other gourmet stores in the area and, potentially, sell at the famed Formaggio Kitchen in Boston's South End. Lynch is also in the process of outfitting a USDA-approved mobile "meat cart" that will allow her to slice cured meats to order at the market.

At her first farmers market, Lynch recalled, despite not yet having name recognition in the community, she sold out in two hours. Since then, she noted, she's had the "good problem" of trying to keep up with orders.

Although Babette's Table is currently the only Vermont business making whole-muscle dry-cured products, Lynch says that the goal is eventually to share her HACCP plan with other producers, which would allow them to jump into the biz with less preamble. And she's not afraid of competition.

"It's a community; it's a small state. You have to work together," she said. The demand for cured meats is so high, Lynch suggested, that it would take a lot of meat makers to saturate the market.

Despite the hunger for lomo and coppa, Lynch is opting to grow her business slowly, keeping a strict eye on quality. To do so, she invokes the spirit of her mentors back in France. Lynch noted that she frequently asks herself: "If Dominique were to walk in when I was processing, would he be proud of me? If he tasted my stuff, would he be happy with what I'd made?"

And, she said, her overarching goal is to bring people together. "That's the idea behind the name Babette's Table," Lynch explained. "It's about making something good enough that people will linger over it and spend time with the people they love."

In France, she pointed out, "We took two hours to eat lunch every day, no matter how much work still needed to be done, no matter how many pigs' heads still needed to be split."

Thus far, her unhurried business model seems to be working, said Lynch: "The outlook for Babette's Table is really promising. Things keep getting better. It's a nice position to be in."

Meet the Meat

Cured meat from Babette's Table - SUZANNE M. PODHAIZER
  • Suzanne M. Podhaizer
  • Cured meat from Babette's Table

The French word charcutier means "pork butcher," but that doesn't mean charcuterie is restricted to pork products. On a charcuterie platter, one might find pheasant sausage, rabbit liver pâté, duck prosciutto or air-dried beef bresaola. In Italy, that same combination of meats would be referred to as salumi. Here's a glossary of some of the cured and aged-meat products made by Vermont producers and available in shops, restaurants and farmers markets around the state.

  • Capicolla/Coppa: The cured neck muscle of a pig, served in very thin slices.
  • Chorizo: A dried Spanish pork sausage seasoned with smoked paprika, garlic and salt.
  • Confit: Meat cooked slowly in fat at a low temperature. Often made with goose or duck fat, but can be made with other meats, as well.
  • Lomo: Cured pork tenderloin.
  • Mortadella: A large Italian pork sausage made of pork meat and fat that are emulsified to create a super-smooth texture. Can be studded with pistachios. Bologna's fancier cousin.
  • Pancetta: Pork belly that is seasoned and dried. Kind of like bacon without the smoke.
  • Prosciutto Crudo: An Italian-style, dry-cured ham.
  • Prosciutto, Waterfowl: Duck or goose breast cured in the manner of prosciutto crudo.
  • Salami: Fermented and air-dried sausage.
  • Saucisson Sec: Classic, midsize pork salami. Lynch noted: "It's one of my best sellers. It's a simple combination of salt and pepper, with just a little bit of garlic in there, as well."
  • Terrine: The name of a loaf-style pan and of foods that are cooked in such a pan. Terrine can be made with ground meat, vegetables, seafood or any combination thereof. Think fancy meatloaf.
  • Toscano: An Italian salami flavored with fennel.

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The original print version of this article was headlined "Going for the Cure"

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