A Small Good
You Say Baloney, I Say Bologna
Baloney…Bologna…Salami…Salumi…let’s call the whole thing charcuterie.
The word is French and, strictly speaking, means “cooked flesh” (from chair, meaning flesh, and cuit, meaning cooked). Charcuterie refers not only to the preserved meat products themselves, but also to the centuries-old craft of preservation, and, in France, to the delicatessen-style shops that sell these products. In Italy, the category of salted and dry-cured meats is called salumi, of which salame (plural salami), is one type (still with me?).
Before refrigeration, most cultures found ways to preserve meat. It may have been to preserve the family’s hogs or the spoils from a hunt, but learning ways of removing moisture from flesh (salting, curing, smoking, fermenting) in order to slow down the spoiling process became necessary. Methods were developed, tested, and eventually codified.
In the case of mortadella, for instance, the traditional sausage of Bologna, Italy, and the original baloney, general ingredients are regulated by law, but exact ingredients, as well as proportions, are kept secret and vary by producer.
These days, restaurants in Maine may serve charcuterie boards, which, besides meats, could also include pickles, mustards, and preserved fruits. Handmade charcuterie is in its ascendancy as “the appetizer most likely to generate buzz for restaurants,” say business reports. In any case, the meaning of the term is slippery.
An item that remains a reliable staple to charcuterie products, however, is pork, and for the artisan charcutier, good pork, local pork, from hogs treated humanely and fed a complex diet, is indispensable.
If the mark of a true artisan is an ability to embrace process, focus only on what’s essential, and transform something rough into something greater than its parts, then 34-year-old Oliver Perkins is one. On a Monday morning in January, Perkins could be found mopping the floors in his Rockport, Maine, shop, A Small Good, Monday being “deep-clean” day.
“Small goods” is a term used in Australia, where Perkins is from, that refers to small meat products such as sausage and bacon. In Maine, Perkins has given new life to this phrase with his 500-square-foot, 18-month-old, USDA-certified wholesale charcuterie. With an expansion underway, the physical size will soon double. Perkins produces a variety of dry-cured and smoked meat products here, all from Maine hogs. He knows who raised them, and he knows what they ate. He makes pancetta, guanciale, coppa, and salami. One of these, Northern Spice Bush Salame, uses the dried drupes (fruit) of the native northern spicebush as a flavoring. Another one uses cider from a local mill. Right now, his products are sold at specialty markets and cheese shops, but plans are curing to target restaurants, too.
Perkins takes exception to the term “charcutier”.
“I would say that a charcutier is more of a chef than a butcher, and is classically trained. I don’t know what to consider myself.”
In Australia, Perkins was working in the anthropology department of the Australian Museum, about to launch a career in academia. But in 2013, he and his wife, Kelly, left Australia and came to America. They wanted a farm and “to be outside, have animals, and create that world for my family. I guess I got sick of sitting in the archives and studying other peoples’ cultures,” says Perkins. So they came to Western Massachusetts where Kelly is from, and Perkins landed a job at a whole-animal butchery where he acquired skills that were marketable.
His business grew out of a desire to find a way to subsidize having a farm.
“Getting onto land without cash was going to be tough for us,” he says. Buying farmland in Maine seemed most attainable after considering property in Vermont and in Massachusetts. And with the help of Maine Farmland Trust, the Perkinses bought 150 acres in Hope, where they will eventually raise their own hogs.
On Tuesdays, hogs from small local farms arrive at A Small Good—300 pounds of young, well-fed, locally raised “heritage mongrels,” as Perkins calls them. He says that the flavor of the meat has everything to do with how the animal was treated and fed, and that he is skeptical of companies that charge a premium for products from heritage breeds.
“Pigs aren’t going to taste like their genetics,” he says.
Working alone, Perkins breaks down the hog into its constituent parts, keeping an eye on the ratio of whole muscle to trim that varies from animal to animal. It’s a balancing act trying to get the optimal mix of products from each animal—pancetta, lonza, coppa, salami. He uses the careful, time-consuming methods of “seam butchery,” which preserves individual muscles or muscle groups rather than chopping up the whole animal. Since the meat is removed right up to the bone in this method, very little is wasted.
Something else that distinguishes A Small Good from other businesses is Perkins’ appreciation of terroir. His goal is “figuring out a way to bring a regional expression of Maine into our product. That expression doesn’t just come from the ingredients, but from the bacteria and the cultures.” To this end he uses not only sea salt from Maine Sea Salt in Marshfield and the aforementioned local hogs, but also harvests native and wild cultures to ferment his salami. He calls it his homemade lacto-brine.
“The industry standard is to use freeze-dried packets of cultures. But we don’t use those. We are the only USDA-certified facility in the country that wild ferments.”
“Whole hog salumi, wild fermented on the Midcoast of Maine,” is how Perkins describes his business. “Now we have something that couldn’t be made anywhere else.” And that’s a big good.
Rosie DeQuattro is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Edible Maine and, formerly, to Edible Boston. She loves to tell the stories of the dedicated and passionate men and women of Maine who produce our food, and about what it takes to get it to our plates.