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Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2009

Finding the Cure

Bolzano Artisan Meats resurrects a lost art

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To our great fortune, we’re in the midst of a culinary renaissance motivated by our appreciation for Old World methods of food production and the fine-tuned flavors that result. All around us, artisans are joining up to hand-make mustards, spirits, pickles and chocolates the way others form artists’ collectives and bands. The foodies that run in these circles quote Michael Pollan, they’ve thought about joining a CSA and, if they haven’t made beer, they want to. The prevailing attitude is resoundingly anti-corporate, and great importance is placed on sustaining the environment, promoting cultural diversity and preserving endangered Old World cuisines.

Like most craftsmen, Scott Buer of Bolzano Artisan Meats began making his own charcuterie, a culinary specialty that uses salting, smoking and drying to preserve meats such as sausages and prosciutto, as a hobby. Inspired by Midwest artisan cheese-makers and craft brewers, Buer became Wisconsin’s only dry-cured charcuterie producer when he opened Bolzano in April 2009. He set up shop at the corner of Holton and Capitol in a 1950s-era dairy formerly occupied by Great Lakes Distillery, the state’s first distillery since Prohibition.

Buer and his wife did most of the start-up work at the facility themselves, outfitting it with equipment—think bins, smokers and climate-controlled coolers—from various sources. Their next challenge was satisfying all the government food agency requirements that regulate how the meats must be made, a task Buer was familiar with from his time in quality control at GE Medical. Managing the continual stream of paperwork and administrative tasks requires more of his time than working with the cured meats.

A self-professed “food nerd,” Buer began practicing his craft simply, essentially teaching himself, and continues to operate it according to old-school traditions. The dry-curing method is a time-honored way to preserve a good harvest. “In the way a wine spotlights the character of a grape and how beer spotlights the subtleties of its grain and hops,” Buer says, “charcuterie showcases what great pork is all about.”

Owners of small farms realized they couldn’t compete with the colossal industrial food complex in making cheap food, and so began the rebirth of the artisan. Because dry-cured—never heated—meat preserves every nuance of an animal’s diet and health, small regional and local farmers saw a market for their unique heritage breeds of hog like Berkshire, Mulefoot and Hereford in dry-curers such as Bolzano Meats. Buer uses 100%-certified Berkshire pork, humanely raised from small regional farmer cooperatives, and plans to expand Bolzano’s line to offer more unique, rare and heirloom hog breeds.

When Buer receives pre-cut pieces of pork, or a whole that needs to be butchered, it’s placed in a container and buried in salt and spices for different durations. The salt not only preserves the meat, but also pulls liquid out. After it’s rinsed, the pieces of meat—pork belly, leg and cheek primarily, but some experimental cuts like back and loin—are hung in a 60-degree climate-controlled cooler with tightly monitored temperature, humidity and airflow. While bacon and ham take two to three days to produce, Bolzano’s pancetta and guanciale go through a dry-curing process for roughly 50 days. The prosciutto—a style called Speck from the region of Italy bordering Austria—includes the additional step of being cold smoked in fragrant fruitwoods, and is dry cured for approximately nine months.

Bolzano Artisan Meats began its endeavors in the booths of area farmers’ markets and has since expanded into stores such as Glorioso's and Rupena's at the Milwaukee Public Market, as well as shops in Madison and Green Bay. Wisconsin foodies are rejoicing in the company’s early reserve program for its Speck prosciutto. Participants are sold a whole Speck prosciutto (nearly 20 pounds) at a 40% discount and are given a personal tour of the facility where they can learn some charcuterie secrets, sample products and pick out their own leg of prosciutto.

The public has grown accustomed to cheap, uniform food because the massive food companies that stock so many of our grocery store shelves will not invest the extra time and expense needed to create delicacies such as prosciutto and guanciale. It’s left to artisans such as Scott Buer to preserve valuable Old World culinary traditions and give people the opportunity to appreciate the finer foods in life.

For more information: (414) 426-6380/ 3950 N. Holton St./ www.bolzanomeats.com