As an apartment dweller, Olympia Provisions: Cured Meats and Tales from an American Charcuterie was a tough book to read. I wanted to make so many things that required the kinds of space or backyard that people living in small apartments just do not have. Most of the time I am grateful for no grass to mow and weeds to pull, but after reading Olympia Provisions, i have some serious house envy. Still, I reasoned, living her in Portland, the home of the actual salumeria and restaurants this book is about, I can just go to the restaurant. The book got me looking it up and trying to make a booking for lunch to discover there are no openings for eight weeks. Wow, now I really want to go to the restaurant! In the mean time, there is the deli!
Olympia Provisions is written by Elias Cairo and Meredith Erickson. Cairo is one of the co-owners and the founder of the very first USDA-approved salumeria in the United States. Ericsson is his amanuensis. I did not even know what the word salumeria meant, but looking it up I learned that it is a store specializing in charcuterie, the wonderful cold, cooked meats we all love so much like sausage, ham and salami. This book is his story and the story of his store along with directions on how to make the essential types of charcuterie and some of his restaurants’ recipes.
Otto von Bismarck said, “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.” Well, that’s only because he didn’t read this book. Cairo makes clear that making sausage is actually a beautiful process. Or, as the sign on the wall where he apprenticed said it, “The task is everything, not the glory.”
The first thing a reader learns is that charcuterie is closer to baking than it is to cooking. There’s none of the splash of this and BAM! of that about charcuterie. Like baking, it’s more about precision and chemistry than experimentation and inspiration, though of course, inspiration and experimentation have their roles to play in perfecting the recipes. The thing is, unlike baking a cake or making a casserole, if you mess up the measurements in charcuterie, you can make someone sick. Elias reminds us of that imperative repeatedly–something that must reassure anyone who goes to his restaurants.
One of the best things about Olympia Provisions is that Elias includes percentages for all his charcuterie recipes making it easy for you to increase or decrease the batch. This makes sense because when you buy a shoulder it is unlikely to weigh exactly the amount to the gram that the shoulder in your recipe is. Cairo walks through the process of making conversions so clearly and explicitly that anyone can succeed.
The book has three sections. The first is about charcuterie, with detailed and explicit instructions for basic types of charcuterie. It begins with the easiest, the slow cooked meats like rillettes and capricola. Then there are the patés, mousses and porchetta, followed by sausages and smoked meat. Finally, the more difficult charcuterie, the dry cured meats like pancetta and the fermented, dry-cured salamis like chorizo and loukanika. Then there is the Intermission – a trip back to Switzerland where Cairo learned his craft at the Alpenrose. It’s full of stunning photos and profiles of the craftsmen who taught him his trade. The final section features recipes from the restaurants for breakfast, lunch, for wine-tastings and for dinner.
The last section is where this home cook felt most at home. Most recipes are designed to serve four, though the laser potatoes recipe ends up making 12 servings. It’s better not to halve that recipe because your fry pan will be too big, instead make it and save some for more meals. That is an amazing recipe and I think I will be making it for Christmas dinner. That’s how good it is. It’s one of those show-off recipes that impress people with how good a cook you are even though it is actually an easy recipe. My favorite kind.
As a grapefruit lover, I was thrilled by the grapefruit and arugula salad recipe. Grapefruit is wonderful in salad and is under-utilized.
Two things united the charcuterie with the restaurant recipes, a firm commitment to quality ingredients and to the care and attention good food deserves. Cairo respects quality and that is his lodestar. It has certainly brought him success.
I like the tone of the writing. It is authoritative–the voice of an expert–but also casual and friendly. He sounds like someone it would be fun to sit down to dinner with, affable and friendly, informed and sensible. For example, he likens the irrational fear of nitrates and nitrites to the FOX News method of taking a fact out of context for maximum scare-mongering. Instead, he explains exactly what nitrates and nitrites are, why they are essential to charcuterie and what the actual dangers are and what they are not. The opposite of FOX News.
The most lovely section, of course, for a reader is the intermission when Cairo takes Ericsson with him back to Switzerland for a ten-day movable feast through the Swiss Alps. There’s adventure and biography and, I think, several more stories that could be told. But it is a short intermission, because this book has a mission, to turn us on to joy of making our own meats and the pure pleasure of eating great food.
I think Eric Wolfinger who took the photos in the book deserves special mention. His photos of the restaurant, the cooks, the guests, the finished dishes and the scenery in Switzerland where Cairo apprenticed are alternately warm and inviting or visually breathtaking. However, it’s his photos of the meats that stand out for me, because really, pictures of raw meat are not that inviting, are they? Don’t they say it’s best not to see the sausage in the making? Well, these photos are of the sausage (and many other things) in the making, quite literally, and they only make you hungry.
I have never reviewed a cook book before, but for the first, I certainly picked a winner. It has everything, an introduction to a type of cooking unknown to me before. It not only introduced me to charcuterie, it overthrew my idea of it as a kind of gross and messy practice. But Olympia Provisions is not The Jungle and now i really want to take a class there, or two or three or more. Olympia Provisions: Cured Meats and Tales from an American Charcuterie is everything essential in a cookbook. It has the expert voice that gives us confidence to try. It has a rationale for the food–a reason to learn these specific recipes. It has an ethic that is about more than food, but also about how to approach one’s work. It has beautiful photos that tell us what the food will look like and suggest they will all be delicious. I also think it would be a great Christmas book for food lovers who love to cook.
I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.