Peter Hoffman, chef of the Savoy restaurant, wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times addressing one of the food issues I find most idiotic.
Mr. Hoffman got an offer from one of his local vendors (the Savoy specializes in locally produced vegetables and meats) for an entire Tamworth pig. He ponders whether or not to take it in view of today’s regulatory atmosphere.
If I really am dedicated to cooking by the seasons and supporting local agriculture, I thought, now would be the obvious time to buy a whole pig. Ideally, I would break it down into primal cuts, put the hams in salt for the next month, and then hang them at room temperature for two years, allowing them to slowly dry into prosciutto. And why not grind up the dark, fatty shoulders with salt, pepper and juniper, stuff the mixture into casings, and then leave the sausages in a cool room for six weeks to naturally ferment, developing delicious, tangy porcine flavors?
I can’t, because the United States Department of Agriculture and the local health departments do not allow commercial processing of meat without refrigeration.
Say what? We here in the good ol’ US of A can’t buy prosciutto, serrano, and other cured meats made the traditional way?
Nope. Thanks to our leaders and regulators in our nanny state we can’t purchase these delicious products unless they are cured in facilities that keep the temperature below the mandated 42 degrees. Problem is that at this low temperature many of the chemical reactions responsible for the wonderful taste of these products made in the traditional way can’t take place.
Italy’s finest prosciutto pro-ducers and Spain’s great Ibérico arti-sans hold their products at 55 to 60 degrees, a temperature range that they say enhances flavors, without causing health problems.
Mr. Hoffman expresses wonder at the idiocy of the USDA regulations:
This is astonishing, because since Neolithic times, people have safely cured and preserved meats without refrigeration. Europeans have turned curing into an art, and the best processors are revered craftsmen who earn national medals of honor. Salt, time and a good dose of fresh air are the only additions needed to produce salsicce, culatello and 24-month-old prosciutto or serrano — foods that Americans smuggle home from Europe in their luggage.
If you’ve ever eaten prosciutto in Italy or serrano in Spain you understand the taste and texture difference between quality cured meats and the pale substitutes we have here that are cured in accordance with USDA regulations. Even the products that we import from those countries have to meet USDA regulations to be eligible for importation, so you can’t get the true taste from them despite their origin.
What can we do? Given the pigheadedness of most everyone in the regulatory business, not much I suspect. Mr. Hoffman has a recommendation that is sure to fall on deaf ears.
What we need is to invert the logic [unfortunately, sadly lacking amongst the regulatory tribe] now applied to meat safety. Rather than apply refrigeration standards to an ancient and safe method of preservation, we need an alternative set of standards that take into account what salting and drying can do to discourage the growth of bacteria. Federal and local health officials should recognize artisanal methods as an alternative to refrigeration.
We can go through the motions of writing letters to representatives, but with the small amounts of money at stake, I doubt that any will get too excited about the enterprise. Sadly, that’s the way our system seems to work.
And a word to the wise..don’t tell the customs inspectors that you’re bringing these products in if you do get some while in Europe, or they will get snagged. And probably find their way into the customs inspectors cupboard.