All sorts of wonderful treats are on the table at Christmas time. And I’m especially proud of some that we served last night for pre-dinner drinks. A dry-cured ham that had been hanging in my cellar for a little over a year and some delightful air-dried bacon from this fall’s Operation Half-Pig accompanied the just-finished chardonnay that my father-in-law made from pressings I brought back for him from my winemaking adventures in Prince Edward County. All beautiful stuff, made all the more special because we made it ourselves.
The ham is just ready, after a full year hanging in the cellar. This slow aging gives the meat and the fat a remarkably smooth, melt-in-your-mouth kind of texture, and makes the meat translucent. After almost a month of dry-curing (the ham-to-be is covered in salt, and the liquid that comes out is scooped out of the curing box every couple of days, contrary to the wet cue used for hams that you cook), the whole ham, with the whole leg (all the way to the foot) was suspended in the cool, damp cellar, with the skin on and the meat side covered with lard, to avoid excessive drying at the surface. The lard can be covered with ground pepper and/or other spices to add to the taste a bit (and, eventually, to keep beasties away – though I’ve seen absolutely nothing of the sort hanging around my ham).
Over time, water evaporates gradually, so that the ham that started at over 20 pounds is now closer to 11-12 pounds. Still, for around 50$ of meat (and 10$ of salt), and a fair bit of patience, here I am with over 10 pounds of dried ham that would easily cost me 20, 25$ per pound at the store. Good value – especially when the meat, from an organic pig, is that tasty, with intense flavors and… maybe a bit too much salt.
That’s actually fine by me, after all. I’m still learning about the ham-making process, and I didn’t want to take any chances – especially since I’m using no nitrates, just sea salt. So I let the salting go on for a couple of extra days, beyond the instructions recommended by Mark Ruhlman in his Charcuterie book. This probably made it a little more salty from the start. Also, the longer drying time, with more water evaporating, means the salt concentration increased as well.
I’m gradually cutting down the salting time, bit by bit, until I hit the right balance. In the meantime, I’d rather get a well-preserved but slightly too salty ham than lose one because it wasn’t salted and cured sufficiently.
The air-dried bacon – or lard séché, as they call it in Valais, the Swiss canton where I discovered this delicacy – was more on the money, in terms of its salt content. After a week in its salt cure (in a ziploc bag where it stayed in contact with the bit of liquid that came out of it), the slab of bacon has been hanging in the cellar for about a month, and is just starting to get its full range of flavors and its creamy texture.
With our Christmas eve drinks, the bacon, smooth and glistening with beautiful fat, went down even faster than the ham, with all members of our family. The fat was reminiscent of Italian lardo, with its gorgeous, gorgeous texture. The taste, with a touch of the pepper and bay leaf it was cured with, felt almost sweet. There is a touch of sugar in the cure, but this probably had as much to do with the smoothness of the bacon than with the actual sugar content.
The rest of the lard is drying some more in the cellar. Just ready, it will benefit from further drying, over the next 2-3 weeks. After that, keeping it in the fridge will help stabilize it. The ham, in the meantime, will be cut into large chunks that will be frozen, well-wrapped in waxed paper and in a freezer bag with the air out.
Now, the wine we had with the meat was a dry, fresh chardonnay with beautiful pear and lemon zest flavors. I have to tip my hat to my father-in-law’s winemaking skills: starting with some good juice, he made some really tasty, pleasant wine, all with natural yeasts that rolled through fermentation quickly and healthily. Young and vibrant, with a beautiful pale-straw colour, it had the acidity to cut through the fat and help make the fatty charcuterie that more digestible. Which leaves some room, afterwards, for some Christmas “marvels” for dessert.
Les merveilles, as they are called in French, are thin sheets of dough (flavored with citrus zests and other spices) that are deep-fried and then, at least in my Swiss in-laws’ family tradition, dusted with powdered sugar. There are a number of variations on this Swiss Christmas delicacy, of course: the dough is actually very close to the one we’ve been using to make small doughnuts, traditionally, in my own family. So thinner and thicker versions abound, some served with syrup, others served plain. This Epicurious recipe gets the dough pretty much right, although the dough should be made thinner – my in-laws use a pasta-making machine to make them really thin before frying them.
Crispy, sweet and fun to eat, they are the perfect companion to a cup of coffee (to wake you up after a mid-day Holiday meal) or a late-harvest wine or cider, with the fruity flavors providing a great complement to the sweet pastries.
All in all, some pretty great Christmas traditions I’ve grown into, thanks to my wife and her family. Much to be thankful for, and great traditions to pass on to our children.