Holding a thinly sliced piece of prosciutto between two of her fingers, Marina, my Italian host mother, declared, “Dai, provalo!” Come on, try it!
It was my first night living in Italy for a semester abroad, and I arrived as a kosher-keeping vegetarian. I hadn’t eaten any meat, let alone pork, for nearly four years, and staring me in the face was an eager Italian woman holding out a slice of cured hog.
In that moment, I took a leap of faith. I figured that the phrase “When in Rome…” seemed particularly apt, even if I was living in a small town several hours north of the capital.
The prosciutto was supple and salty with a hint of sweetness. It practically melted on my tongue as the fatty edges left a lingering silken feeling in my mouth.
As I ate the meat, I felt — like so many other modern American Jews who have struggled with kashrut observance — guilty and seduced by one of the kitchen’s most profoundly intense flavors.
Successfully imitating the flavor and texture of cured pork is ironically the Holy Grail of many a kosher chef. There are enough stories of chefs trying to make kosher bacon taste like pork bacon to fill a book (or two, or three). But, until recently, few kosher chefs explored what I experienced in Italy — the world of salumi, known more commonly by its French name, charcuterie.
The word charcuterie roughly translates as “cooked meat.” Curing meat to preserve it is a culinary tradition that is as old as the Roman Empire. French cooks and butchers transformed the custom from necessity to delicacy. Customarily, charcuterie includes numerous varieties of cured pork — like air-dried sausages and prosciutto — as well as pâtes and bresaola (an air-dried salted preparation of beef). The meats are often served thinly sliced with only the simplest accompaniments — bread and sometimes mustard, cheese, cornichons or olives.
Today, innovative chefs like David Kolotkin at Manhattan restaurant The Prime Grill, who added a charcuterie board to his menu eight months ago, are trying to create a kosher equivalent of the carnivore’s delight. Kolotkin explained: “I’m always trying to give my clientele flavors they can’t have.” And he does a good (though very salty) job of that.
Kolotkin’s 12-inch-wide wooden cutting board is artfully topped with house-made meats like air-dried salami, spicy pepperoni and beef bresaola that are sliced so thin they appear shaved. A rich veal country-style pâte, a small ramekin of whole grain mustard, a few gherkins and spicy cherry peppers and a basket of grilled bread round out the traditional presentation.
Jose Meirelles, chef and owner of Manhattan’s Le Marais, who long ago added a kosher charcuterie board to his menu to mimic the one he offered at his old non-kosher French restaurant, Les Halles, echoed Kolotkin’s desire to make the flavors of charcuterie accessible to kosher diners.
Other chefs see charcuterie differently. “As a chef I don’t think it’s my job to trick someone,” Chef Chaim Davids told me in a telephone interview from Jerusalem. When Davids opened the now-shuttered Bay Area restaurant The Kitchen Table in 2009, he dubbed a platter of cured meats like Tuscan salume and maple-cured lamb breast a “koshuterie plate.” Instead of trying to mimic the flavor of pork, Davids celebrated the flavors of the meats he could use. As a chef who came to religion later in life, Davids told me: God created the flavors as they are and “your job as a chef is to not screw it up.”