The Lost Art of Guanciale

Perhaps more than most things we eat, meat has become an absence in our food system. Whether you eat it in nugget form, pink slime, or even packaged in its Styrofoam tomb, the meat you get at the grocery store comes plucked, shucked, boneless and processed to the point where the animal and the idea of the animal no longer align. And this is for good reason. The food industry doesn’t want you to think too hard about where your meat came from. They rely on what Michael Pollan calls the “supermarket pastoral” to conceal the fact that meat production shares more in common with the assembly line that put your phone together than the pastoral image we have of the typical farm. Our insatiable desire for “cheap meat” has created an environmental nightmare. The livestock sector is now the top two or three of the most significant contributors to a whole host of environmental problems that include climate change, deforestation, and land and water pollution.

But this does not have to be this way. If you are worried about how we are going to feed the billions of people on this planet, one solution is everyone eating less meat. The average American eats 125 kilograms of meat a year, and Canada doesn’t lag too far behind at just under 100 kg. From an environmental standpoint, eating less meat is one of the most effective things you can do to reduce your ecological footprint. It’s better than switching from a gas guzzler to a Prius, and has a lot of positive effects on your health and the wellbeing of the animals within an industrial system that fails to treat living creatures with compassion. Before I became a locavore, I was a vegetarian for about a decade. Now I practice a weekday vegetarian diet, and the meat I do eat comes from a handful of farms.

This is what I want to talk about: the importance of understanding and appreciating the meat you do eat. I’m not going to try to convert you to veganism or shame you for eating meat. I just want to encourage you to face your meat directly, to get to know it a little better, and in the process, to encourage you to take responsibility for your impact on the world. There are many benefits to buying directly from a farmer. One of which is control over what you purchase. I often spend an hour on the phone discussing specific cuts, flavouring for the sausage, and what I want and don’t want to receive.

When you buy a half or whole animal, you have the option of getting everything. And I mean everything! At first, the thought of receiving pigs’ ears, trotters, and kidneys was a bit strange compared to the skinless, boneless package of pink flesh in the grocery. Depending on the package you buy, sausage, for example, you are eating many of the offcuts anyway, albeit mixed with preservatives, stabilizers, and often washed with ammonia.

Something amazing happens, however, when you start to deal with these things directly. You realize how much of the food we eat is culturally determined and how much possibility is wasted. Who decided that pork chop is superior to cheek meat? And what do you do with the face? Easy, you make face bacon, an absolute delicacy that most will never have the opportunity to try unless you delve into the lost art of guanciale. This is not a product carried by your typical, or even your high end butcher. This is something you will have to do yourself.

Guanciale is made from the jowl of the pig and is one of the simplest cures for an amateur to make at home. Once you get over the initial shock, for you can indeed tell this is part of the face, it’s relatively easy.

Unlike bacon made from the belly, face bacon contains a high ratio of collagen to fat, and this is what makes it so unique. The flavour is incredible. You don’t smoke the bacon, so there is a very earthy porkiness to it. This isn’t the kind of bacon you fry up with your eggs. Rather, this is the kind of bacon that will make the most velvety, rich, and smooth Carbonera you have ever tried. Carbonera made with the traditional eggs, cream, bacon and parmesan is great, but the texture and flavour you get from guanciale is simply unparalleled.

There is a brutal and twisted efficiency to industrial meat. Every part is used in some way, even if that means it is turned into MRM (Mechanically Reclaimed Meat). Now that I know what these “lesser” pieces can achieve, however, I am saddened that more people do not experience it as well. Ultimately, this is one of the best reasons to buy straight from a farmer. When you face your meat directly, you have to account for the entirety of the animal.

Like countless generations before us, respect and responsibility is made possible by treating every part of the animal as worthwhile. If you are a carnivore, then you owe it to yourself to utilize every bit. Doing so can help support the type of craft farming that preserves heritage breeds on the verge of extinction because they do not fit the industrial model well. These are animals that grow “too slowly” or react poorly to confinement. These are animals that have not been bred to conform to an Intensive Livestock Operation. Ironically, the survival of these breeds depends on people eating them.

I purchase most of my pork from a farmer named Fred. Much of the flavour of Fred’s pork comes from the way that he breeds and raises his animals. Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food International, awarded Fred the status of Master of Pork, an honour reserved only for those who take the time to raise their animals naturally and healthily, in ways that can impart superior flavours to the meat. That effort manifests in the pork, and it is only through taking time to consider your food and prepare it carefully, with thought, that you can fully enjoy the art form that is traditional farming. Industrial agriculture has prevented many millions from starving over the years, but some part of the joy of food has been lost in the process.

Reconnecting to the process of raising our food will help to return some of that joy. It may be too much to jump right in and order a whole pig, but taking time to consider where even supermarket meat comes from is a step. And if you have access to a farm that sells local meat, consider making your own face bacon the next time you want to try something new.

Note: A longer post, complete with a recipe for guanciale, can be found here while Mike’s most recent book can be found here.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons; unknown photographer.

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