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Leading up to the opening of the first Red Apron Butcher in Union Market, Chef Nate Anda was squeezing sausages, hoping a bright red oil would coat his palms when he unfurled his fingers. This testing method came about after José Andrés chided Anda at the Penn Quarter farmers market.
“He would come down and eat the samples,” Anda explains. “One day he was like, ‘What is this?’ I was like, ‘It’s chorizo.’ He’s like, ‘No, it’s not. In order for it to be chorizo, it has to bleed red.’ He held it in his hand and nothing was coming out. I used that as my gauge.” The color comes from the smoked paprika that flavors the smoky, aromatic sausage. “Once I got José’s approval, I started selling it again. I’ve never changed the recipe since.”
Anda is a perfectionist, which has served him well in his pursuit to build one of the most robust house-made charcuterie line-ups in the country. Since he first became consumed with butchering, curing salami, and stuffing sausages in the early aughts, Anda has grown his charcuterie portfolio to about 60 products within Neighborhood Restaurant Group.
Thirty-eight are currently available to try at The Partisan for $4.50 an ounce. The restaurant keeps portions small in hopes that diners will experiment. “If you’re going to get four items, get three you might recognize and shoot the moon on another one,” Anda advises.
Among his creations are pork heart flavored with Chianti; spreadable ’nduja; a pig head whose flavors imitate Vietnamese pho; and basic pepperoni. “One of the biggest misconceptions about charcuterie is that it’s all made of lips and assholes,” Anda says. Some of his more creative cured meats are inspired by cocktails such as the “Campari Rosemary,” which tastes like a sweet and bitter negroni.
While Anda’s roster is creative and extensive, NRG restaurants are far from the only places in the District that serve charcuterie or its synonyms such as “salumi.” Charcuterie, often found in the appetizer section of menus, translates to “pork butcher’s shop” in French and has come to mean the art of preparing and assembling cured and other meat products alongside various accompaniments such as jam, nuts, and bread.
City Paper found 101 restaurants in Northwest D.C. alone that offer a board with at least two meats on their dinner menus. Prosciutto, bresaola, coppa, soppressata, and finocchiona appeared most frequently.
The least expensive board we found was at Breadsoda, where you can get prosciutto, hot capicola, Genoa salami, and Black Forest ham for $10.95. On the other side of the spectrum is Jaleo’s $40 trio of Spanish meats, including a 48-month cured Ibérico ham.
Unlike Breadsoda and Jaleo, many restaurants don’t list what’s on their boards and others don’t describe where their charcuterie is from, making it hard for customers to discern if they’re getting a good value. Blindly ordering a board feels like perusing a wine list that doesn’t include each bottle’s region, producer, or vintage.
Chris Johnson, the co-founder of local charcuterie company Cured DC, has been disappointed lately. “Almost every restaurant nowadays has charcuterie,” he says. “I order it and I’m always taken aback. I don’t think I’ve ordered a board that’s under $25 and they’re all kind of light in terms of meat. There’s a lot of accoutrements, but not a huge amount of actual charcuterie … A lot of places are buying it from other places. The mark-up is pretty high.”
It’s even difficult to tell if a restaurant is making its charcuterie in house or relying on outside purveyors. This general lack of transparency conflicts with current trends. Diners today want to know as much as possible about their food, and restaurants have largely answered the call through more verbose menu descriptions or by training staff to relay details. Is it local? Sustainable? Grass-fed? Hormone-free? Halal?
Curious about the proliferation of charcuterie, City Paper set out to learn why so many D.C. eateries from fine dining Spanish and Italian restaurants to neighborhood brew pubs serve it; what barriers prevent more chefs from making their own; and how diners can tell if they’re shelling out for something special versus something they could find at Safeway.
Restaurants and bars each have reasons for selling charcuterie. Some are simple. “I think people like anything where they get bread,” says Pub & The People Executive Chef Ben Schramm. “There’s still this ’90s thing, where diners are like, ‘What? I’m not getting [free] bread and butter?’ So when they see it has bread, they order it.”
The bar doesn’t list what’s on its $15 charcuterie board because Schramm says it changes frequently. He talks servers through each day’s array so they can tell diners. Recently Schramm has been bringing in jamón serrano and duck sausage, but he makes head cheese in house. It involves braising a pig’s head for hours with lime, ancho chili, shallots, and garlic until it breaks down. Once the parts are tender, Schramm forms a terrine and slices it. He calls it pork rillette “so we can get more people to try it.”
At Osteria Morini there’s a strong focus on charcuterie or “battilardo” from Emilia-Romagna. “We have first-time diners come in and sit down with us and it’s something we really push because we’re trying to recreate the experience of going to that region of Italy,” says Chef de Cuisine Thomas Levandoski. He’s also picked up on an uptick of diners who graze. “There are a lot of younger diners who come into a place like Morini and get something like that and then go explore somewhere else.”
Anda has another theory. “There’s a good profit margin in it, but it’s also a social thing to do,” he says. “It’s a good way to start a meal, a good way to meet up with friends and have a board of meat in front of you and take it down.” He adds that cured meats pair well with everything from sour beers to brown spirits.
Anda believes charcuterie today is where the farm-to-table movement was 10 years ago. “It was really hard to source good products, whether proteins or vegetables, and then purveyors figured out that chefs were willing to go the extra mile,” Anda says. “There’s a lot more quality available now for places that want to buy and put stuff on their menus.”
Sourcing charcuterie from high-end outfits like International Gourmet Foods, Julius Silvert, and D’Artagnan is sometimes the more sensible thing to do, given the various hurdles to making charcuterie on site. “You want to have the best product,” Levandoski says. “We could sit here and make our own prosciutto, but we don’t have the space or time to sit on 20 months, so we look to professionals and people who do this for a living.”
Making charcuterie is a specialized skill. “A lot of people say they know how to do it, but when it comes down to doing it consistently, that’s a challenge,” Johnson says. Chefs are already saddled with updating menus seasonally, managing staff, and monitoring food costs. “They’re not going to have time to go deep.”
Anda took a three-week charcuterie course in culinary school, but that wasn’t enough to feel confident. “While it’s hands on, you get out of it and you’re like, ‘Shit, how do I do this?’” he recalls. He benefited from apprenticing at two butcher shops in Napa Valley.
Making charcuterie can also be prohibitively expensive. Often you have to deal in whole, half, or quarter animals, which requires significant up-front money and an expansive kitchen. Then you need an area with the requisite humidity and temperature to cure and age certain products. Several restaurants like The Eastern, La Jambe, and Dino’s Grotto serve hybrid boards where chefs source cured meats but make fresh items like smoked sausages, rillettes, roulades, and pâté.
“A lot of things can go wrong,” Anda says, noting that he’s tucked a few charcuterie experiments in between two slices of bread when they’re not up to snuff. “When you get the whole animal it’s a lot of money. You’re already thinking, ‘How am I going to make my money back on this?’”
“The D.C. government and a lot of local health departments don’t really understand charcuterie still, even though there’s a lot more of it,” Johnson adds. He initially produced out of Union Kitchen. “When we were going through the regulatory process, it was a lot of education for the health department staff because they didn’t know. As soon as you tell them you’re sitting meat above regulated temperatures they’re like, ‘Absolutely not!’ It took us a while to convince them this is safe.”
Johnson is trying to find a space to open a charcuterie beer garden or similar concept, but his efforts have been futile. “Everything has gotten so expensive we can’t afford to do it,” he says. “Especially because we need space to cure and age things.” He’s not willing to string up meat in spaces that serve other purposes like wine cellars, as some restaurants do covertly. Johnson isn’t giving up. He loves how charcuterie blurs the line between art and science.
Ordering charcuterie can feel like a gamble, but there are ways to tell if you’re being duped. “For me, it’s what leads when it hits your palate,” Anda says. “Is it fat-forward? Salt-forward? What’s the texture? I want to be able to put ham in my mouth and not use my teeth that much.”
When it comes to texture, Johnson adds that “something fresh will also be real sticky in a sense.” Color is important too when it comes to prosciutto and coppa. “If it’s really dark red and kind of brittle, you immediately know it’s not fresh.”
“You have to read the room,” Levandoski says. More specifically, see if you can spot a fancy slicer like a big red Berkel that indicates a restaurant has invested in its charcuterie program. Also look for variety. “If there are only two meats and a cheese, you could think, ‘Ah, they’re probably just doing it to do it.’ The fact that we give a variety and you build your own [board] is another way to tell that we take this seriously.”
“Slicing is very important,” notes La Jambe co-owner Anastasia Mori. She imports European charcuterie for her wine bars, save for the pâté and terrines she and her staff make from family recipes. Back when Mori lived in France, she worked for a supermarket chain with 60 stores. She handpicked charcuterie for the company by visiting producers in Italy, Spain, and France.
“If you go to a restaurant where the prosciutto is sliced very thick or the salami has big chunks, it’s a no-go because that’s how you will find it in supermarkets,” Mori says. “If it’s sliced thinner, it doesn’t stay as well. The Italians are the ones famous for slicing their meats to order and extremely thin to enjoy the flavor more. Charcuterie shouldn’t need anything else to enjoy it. Because it’s a ‘by-itself’ product, quality is super important. You can’t hide behind butter.”