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Opa’s Craft

In on July 21, 2010 by fred

In the German language Opa means grandfather, and Opa to us is my father and my daughter’s grandfather. Opa received his Masters in Animal Nutrition at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville in 1961.  He owned and operated an animal feed franchise in Central Indiana for a few years, then in 1969 he bought a semi-truck and trailer, loaded the family’s belongings into it, and drove it across country from Southern Indiana into what was then the middle of nowhere — Bend, Oregon.  They resettled on a ranch (read patch of sagebrush in the high-desert) and he started hog farming.  In 1971 he purchased the local meat processing plant and had a few retail stores in Bend, Redmond and Gresham, Oregon called Meats & Treats.  The plant and farm were later sold and Dad went on to his next venture, real estate, which was booming in Bend at the time.  All of this before I was born.

Dad always had semi-dry summer sausage around, and we regularly had braunsweigger or liverwurst in the fridge.  He went out of his way to buy thuringer when he found it, a taste I could never appreciate when I was young, but I believe it brought him back to the time when he was growing up in a German farming community with his German parents who occasionally spoke plaugh-deutsch to each other.

So where does my interest come from?  Apparently it’s in my blood.  I’ve been seeking out the best hot dogs in Los Angeles for some time now.  I relish Oktoberfest in all its forms, with a plate of brats, mustard and sauerkraut washed down with a giant mug of ice cold lager.  But when I went to the Original New York System weiners in Providence, Rhode Island, something clicked — those dogs were like nothing I’d ever had before.  LA is a hot dog haven, but why don’t we have hot dogs that make you drop to the floor when you bite into them because you can’t believe how good they taste?  I was determined to make those hot dogs.

It turns out that making home-made meat products is a slippery slope and the gateway meat for me was those weiners.  The basic equipment required to make fresh dogs is the same as (or more than) what you need to make fresh sausages.  Once you make fresh sausage, why not smoke them?  Once you are smoking sausages, why not cure and smoke whole ham, chickens, fish,= and pastrami?  Once you are curing and smoking sauasages and whole meats, it’s a relatively small leap in equipment (but a big leap in practical understanding) to fermenting and drying your own raw meat sausages like salami, saucisson sec, thuringer, spanish chorizo and countless others.

Mercat de La Boqueria

A cured meat stand in the Mercat de La Boqueria, Barcelona

A recent trip to Southern Europe for my father-in-law’s 75th birthday opened my eyes.  I knew cured meats were more prevalent there, but I had no idea how prevalent — shop after shop dedicated to cured meat products were everywhere in Spain, the South of France, Italy and Corsica.  Out of 25 stands at the farmers markets in Corsica, six exclusively sold cured meat. A tiny farmers market in Barcelona had a guy selling his dried saucisson sec and longaniza from a small wooden table, and the Mercat de La Boqueria is a cured meat lover’s paradise, with more than 55 meat and charcuterie stands in a space no larger than a football field, nearly all of them selling Jamón ibérico in one for or another.

I now know how exceptional the prize pig can taste — weak in the knees, drooling on yourself exceptional.   I’m amazed that in the United States we have strayed so far away from the highest quality products and how we settle for the banal.   I’m going to strive for perfection, knowing it exists and plenty of people in other parts of the world are enjoying it every day — let me know what you think.