Charcuterie 101: When a country cooking school came to town
When Mike Crewe-Brown brought his country cooking school to a farm near Cradock, something was awakened in this Karoo townie.
Those lines that thread through our lives, one event leading to another, had somehow brought Mike Crewe-Brown and I to this. All roads take us somewhere, but we’re not always sure of the destination or even the route. The road that takes you out of Cradock and into the Swaershoek and its hidden worlds of strangeness and wonder first takes you past Orange Grove farm. It was here, last weekend, that I came to meet up with an old friend I first met in July 1997 when, one fine summer’s day in Wales, we both met a prince.
It’s an odd bond to have with somebody, leading to an unlikely conversation between us on Sunday. I admitted that, with all the protocol involved (you can say this, you can’t say that, you can’t ask him questions, you must let him speak first), I had no memory at all of what the prince had said to me or I said to him. Mike, meanwhile, had total recall of his own conversation with Prince Charles. One person we’re sure has no memory of meeting either of us at all is the prince himself, given how many million hands he’s shaken in his lifetime of lingering in grand shadows.
Without having been on that same jaunt to Wales in 1997 to meet a prince, whose former wife would die one month and three days later in a Paris underpass, I would not have gone on a charcuterie and sausage making course last weekend. Because that is what Mike Crewe-Brown does now, and that is where I live, and I doubt we would ever have met otherwise.
Crewe-Brown and his wife Cilla run their Wickedfood Earth Country Cooking School in the part of the country I know the least, in Magalies valley about 70 km from Fourways, Joburg, which apparently is near something called Hekpoort, whatever that is (we Karoo types don’t get out much). But luckily they had taken their cooking school show on the road, saving us Karoo squirrels the hassle of having to trek north, which means they may be coming to a small town near you at some point. To find out, contact Mike on their website.
I have three hours of voice notes and a whole lot more memories, but rather than get bogged down in every fine detail I’m going to paint a broad picture of those two days on the farm. There is very fine detail involved in the world of charcuterie, and it quickly became clear last weekend that what you read about it in books, and what you learn by being taught first-hand, touching, smelling and tasting, are worlds apart. So it’s a course that you need, and a good one, not a book; it’s a teacher you need, and Mike Crewe-Brown is the man for the task.
You also need a setting. Orange Grove farm is well known in the Eastern Cape as it is the home of Tracey and Toby Michau (one of the best known surnames in the Cradock region). Tracey is a force of nature in the world of sustainable living. Her Self Sufficiency & Sustainable Living Facebook group is a good one for keeping on the pulse of all things sustainable. As you approach the front door of their farmhouse you’re greeted by a miscellany of dogs, peacocks, chickens, geese and ducks, even the odd milk cow. Also greeting you, on a side stoep, is a Rocket oven which burns on bits of wood or bark yet can reach 180℃ in 10 minutes. Its base is made of fire bricks and it has a rotisserie. It is on my shopping list; I have to have one.
Somehow, Mike and Tracey found each other in their shared worlds of working the land and making do with, and a life out of, anything that grows or lives on their lands. Strangers meet, eight of us as well as the Michaus and Crewe-Browns, and soon we’re at the long kitchen table getting to know one another and listening to Mike chat enchantingly about his world of cured meats and sausages. Before long, we’ll be trudging out to a big shed where we’ll see, taste, smell and touch these prized things which, if we pay attention, we may soon know how to produce ourselves. We will get to know the inside of a pig, intimately.
Everything with Mike is sensible and factual. Everything is told for a reason, as befits the thinking of a journalist who, in his case, has shifted from editing a food magazine (Bon Vivant) a long time ago to producing the kinds of things he once wrote about; all things sustainable and particularly charcuterie, the French term for the craft of extending the life of meat, interrupting its ability to rot, and as we all know adding all manner of marvellous flavours from salt, spices and herbs to smoke, wine and sweet things such as fruit, honey and even marmalade; the Spanish have a knack for the fruitier kinds of charcuterie.
I’m at the kitchen table paging through the notes we’ve all been handed and the others can’t see the sense of excitement that’s rising within me as I realise that we are about to be part of the making of pancetta, coppa and, the next day, basic breakfast sausages (pork bangers, really), Italian sweet sausage, and salami such as German mett (a fresh uncured salami), which one of our four teams gets to make.
Some of it ultimately became a tad too scientific for my brain; talk of Ph soon has my mind wondering, as it does when winemakers go on and on and on about degrees Balling and the lees, the lees, like Katharine Hepburn going on and on about the loons in On Golden Pond, whereas I’m more interested in how you put the thing together, how this or that changes its character and texture, and what the thing tastes like. I’m also the most injury prone of the group, as soon becomes evident when, on the first day, Mike has shown us how to break down a (half) pig and when our turn comes and he beckons to me first, hands me a knife, I’m not even halfway through slicing off the leg when the knife finds my finger and I’m Man Down. Barely minutes later, I cut a second finger. Damn, that was annoying. And embarrassing. The Townie couldn’t cut it. Well, he could, but not only the pig…
The breaking down of the first side of the pig was done by Mike, from dissecting to skinning, cutting off bits of (essentially) rubbish and putting the bits and pieces into different bowls or plastic trays for different purposes. Some would go to the next day’s sausages, belly to be cured for pancetta, skin for binding sausages.
I was mildly disappointed that, after being shown how to prepare cures for meat, we didn’t get to do that ourselves, but this was an introduction to this world, so we could hardly expect to start building the ship on Saturday morning and be launching it on Sunday afternoon. Let’s say the appetite was well whet. But I will start small, with, perhaps, a little slab of pork belly to try to turn it into a simple pancetta. And I will try to get the hang of sausage making by having a go (without help this time) at a basic pork banger. Though you do need a mate to help you when the time comes to mince the meat, with one guy slowly turning the handle while the other feeds the meat into sausage casings. (And there’s another whole world with all sorts of details that need to be considered.)
So much information in such a short time. There’s so much to consider, from everything to do with salting to temperature and humidity, to whether to use sugar in your curing (not essential but has a role to play), the role of moulds and bacteria (not the same thing), and those pesky nitrites and nitrates, and for that you need expert tuition. And precision. And how dextrose (a simple sugar made from corn) is used in the making of salami; the difference between dry curing and air drying, different cures for different meats, cuts or styles. I thought dough was the only thing that needed kneading, but that happens for sausage making and salami too. And salami even requires proving in a warm place, just like bread needs for its rising, though for salami this takes much longer and has a different purpose.
The second day was more hands-on than the first. We arrived as novices (with some exceptions; some in the group had made sausages before) and ended the day having actually made sausages with our own now dirty, messy hands. But not bloody, note: the “blood” in the meat we buy or in that “bloody” steak is not blood but haemoglobin and water, as Mike pointed out. The blood, by the time we buy it, has left the animal.
There’s such a mountain of knowledge to be had that I’m not going to try to share everything; that would take a book, and I’m not the one to write it. I’ll narrow it down to Mike’s 10 points for making sausages, but bear in mind that this only scratches the surface. It’s a course such as the Wickedfood one that you need if you want to start curing meats and making sausages.
- The most common mistake is using meat that’s too lean when making sausages. “Good sausage and salami,” Mike says, “contain 20% to 40% fat. Fat lubricates the meat and gives it flavour. It also serves as a binder and, without it, the texture of the sausage becomes almost unpalatable.” So, if the idea of fatty meat is not your thing, sausages should be off the menu. It’s a part of the very id of what sausages are. The exception to this ratio is boerewors, which contains 95%+ of meat and, like drôewors, in this regard is unlike all other sausages in the world.
- Meat must be well chilled when making sausages (ditto for curing meats) and our hands became truly icy at many points while learning how to do all this. The freezer door was opening and closing like a brothel bedroom door throughout, as trays of meat went in to keep it all cold and then out again for us to do the next part of the process. Dipping your hands into a tray of very cold freshly minced sausage meat is wildly tactile, and I needed to dip my hands into warm water several times to prevent them going numb.
- You cannot make sausage without salt: between 1.5 and 2% for fresh sausage and up to 3% for dry cured.
- Binders such as rice, breadcrumbs and even pork skin are used in most sausage making, but not more than 10% of the filling. (We used pork skin.)
- You know me and recipes, right? I fiddle and adapt all the time, that’s what I do, given that writing recipes is half of my job. But we are advised not to do that with sausage making. “Follow your recipe for sausages precisely,” says Mike, which he demonstrates throughout Sunday. “You cannot fudge established, time-honoured and proven rules on how to make sausages. If not, don’t blame the recipe for a disastrous end product.” Noted, teacher.
- Spices and fresh herbs for sausage must be sterilised as they may contain bacteria that can spoil your sausages. (I had to ask how. He replied that you sterilise spices and fresh herbs in a 72℃ to 85℃ oven for half an hour.
- Salting is hugely important, not just that you have to use it, but which kind to use and which not. Iodated/iodised salt is verboten. Again, there’s a world of information and potential for error in salt. It boils down to two varieties when curing: first, kosher salt, which does not mean it is “kosher” in the traditional sense. It means that “the salt draws away any residual blood from the meat, in line with the rules for the preparation of kosher meat. Second, “pink salt”, not to be confused with commercial pink salts such as Himalayan. This pink salt is the collective term for synthetic curing mixes with added nitrates and nitrates”. And in those two little words lie another world of knowledge that has to be understood; Mike went over and over it and I am still having to check my notes. So I will not be the one to impart that to you: it’s an expert you need.
- The meat has been ground, you have your sausage casings to hand, It’s time to start stuffing them, right? No it isn’t. First it has to be mixed and kneaded. The kneading develops the proteins that turn it into a sort of sticky meat paste, which gives the sausage texture. To test this, you pick up a clump of meat and hold it palm side down, so the minced meat is on the underside of your hand. If it sticks and holds there, it’s right. If it falls, keep kneading. I doubted this (It’s in a journo’s nature), but lo and behold: my giant of a teammate Bandile Ncunyana held a great big clump of meat under his hand, defying gravity. The job was done.
- But you can overmix so, just as when kneading dough for bread, there’s a moment when it’s just right. This, obviously, is something that comes with practice and experience.
- And finally, air pockets are like pickpockets: beware of them. So when, near the end of Sunday, Bandile and I had our turn to put the mince and kneaded meat into the machine for the stuffing of our sausage casings, boy did we whack it down to the bottom of that cylinder. This is followed by punching it down to ensure that no air gets trapped. You’ll soon know if you’ve succeeded: at one point there was a gap in the casing as the sausage meat rolled out. Our first air pocket. Next batch was whacked even more determinedly into the cylinder.
I’m in the privileged position of being allowed to take home a little pack of four of the bangers that Bandile and I made, for reasons of being a food writer who was about to write about the making and then the cooking of them and, you know, how can I do that if I don’t get to take a few home… but Tracey very kindly allowed me to do so, even though the deal they had with Wickedfood was that they would get the products made over the two days. Fair deal; they’ve given up their home and their weekend for all this. So our supper back in town that night was, what else, bangers and mash with a traditional British onion gravy, and it was published as our Throwback Thursday recipe this week and the story and recipe are here. All of the above was cooked in the dark during load shedding; such are the lengths a food writer will go to to get the (food) story. (The photo illustrating that recipe was taken in total darkness; that’s how good the camera on an iPhone 13 Pro is.)
What to take home other than those four delicious sausages which I will not deny I am immensely proud of having made? A sense of awe, for one, at Mike Crewe-Brown’s knowledge, his genial, smiling teaching skills and his immense patience. An awareness that something had awakened in me, and that I need to explore it further. But most of all, the smell. When I got home, in my kitchen, I smelt something, and sighed happily. It smelt like the day. It smelt of the weekend. It was the little pack of proud sausages on the kitchen table. DM/TGIFood
Visit the Wickedfood website to enquire about cooking courses both at their school in the Magalies valley and on tour.
Tony Jackman is Galliova Food Champion 2021. His book, foodSTUFF, is available in the DM Shop. Buy it here.
Follow Tony Jackman on Instagram @tony_jackman_cooks. Share your versions of his recipes with him on Instagram and he’ll see them and respond.