Tuesday, March 6, 2007
By the second day of the matanza, the crew is showing signs of wear. Children are over-excited and sleep deprived. We missed much of the festivities the night before when our own daughter melted down for lack of sleep. Fireworks were canceled because of high winds. Some of the crew are feeling the effects of too much merry making.
The good news: we are way ahead of schedule. Six pigs have all been killed and butchered. Most of the meat has been carved. What remains is to package and organize the finer cuts, and turn the rest into sausages.
In past years, this was no easy chore. The group was using the most rudimentary of equipment. All of the sausage meat, for instance, was ground in a small Cuisinart in the farmhouse kitchen. "We had to throw bags of ice on the Cuisinart to cool it down," said Christine Bergmark.
One of the matanza participants, Bob Feldhaus, has solved that problem. Feldhaus operates a pet store in nearby Leonardtown with friend Ronnie Frederick. Both are frequent visitors to the farm to help process venison. They are avid sausage makers. This year Feldhaus has purchased a commercial-grade meat grinder and a Cabela brand sausage extruder that holds several gallons of meat.
Most of the "volunteer" help has departed. Now it is down to the matanza shareholders: Brett and Chris, Bobby and Ronnie and Rusty and Karen, two former neighbors from a time when the farmer-wife team lived in Arlington. For some reason, the men gravitate toward the heavy equipment, while the women begin vacuum packing and sorting the meat. I have cleaned the bathtub in the walk-in refrigerator. Now the hams and bacon slabs are curing under layers of kosher salt. I join Bobby at the sausage making station.
There has been extensive chatter and deliberation over what kind of sausages to make and which recipes to use. One of the sources the group relies on is Great Sausage Recipes and Meat Curing by a fellow named Rytek Kutas. Kutas, a man of simple tastes and straightforward opinions, advocates a husband and wife team for making "up to 100 pounds" of sausage a day. His recipes call for quantities no smaller than 25 pounds of meat.
This year the matanza group has decided on 7 different types of susage: Kielbasa, Italian, Sicilian, Hungarian, chorizo, breakfast patties and a "mystery" blend. Actually, two kinds of chorizo sausage emerged when one faction declared that the recipe did not have enough heat. The mix was split in half and some of Brett's incendiary homemade Tabasco sauce, along with red pepper flakes, were added to jack up the heat quotient.
To season the sausages, Bobby has brought bags of spices mail-ordered from Detroit: fennel, marjoram, paprika. After the meat has been pressed through the grinder, and after the seasonings are added, Rusty, a carpenter by trade, itches to apply his half-inch drill. The drill holds a three-foot-long mixing tool that makes child's play out of blending the meat and spices in a large plastic tub.
From there, the meat makes its way to Bobby's big Cabela extruder. Bobby's hands are practically numb from handling the cold meat. Wearing a pair of bright blue, neoprene gloves, I pitch in to keep the extruder loaded. Bobby slips a sausage casing onto the extruder. As he pulls down on the extruder's handle, the meat is forced into the casings forming one long, long sausage. I guide the finished sausage to prevent any tangles or pile-ups. As the hours pass, we cover several plastic-lined tabletops with the different varieties of sausages, about 300 pounds in all. They are laid out in long coils to dry. Later, we will twist the sausages into smaller links before cutting them into lots of five and vacuum packing them for distribution to the matanza members.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, chef Jeffrey Heineman is hunched over a small Cuisinart, making filling for his jumbo hot dogs. The meat for hot dogs must be finely ground and emulsified. Once in their casings, the dogs are then poached slowly in a water bath in the oven.
The work, the cold, the long cocktail hours--all are taking a toll. I yearn for a nap. It's just about this point that Brett taps me to join him in one of his two greenhouses to "pick bones." The bones from the butchering operation had been placed in a huge kettle and simmered the day before. Now we get to pull a couple of milk crates up to the kettle, sit in the warmth of the greenhouse and sort through the bones for bits of meat that can be used in sauces and possibly scrapple.
I am happy to pass an hour with Brett this way, sitting and picking. We talk about the business of farming. We gab about the huge rains that fell last June, about tomato blight, the fungus that killed my squashes, planting seeds early, and whether my collards will come back from last month's snow and ice storm.
For lunch, I return to the house and help my wife prepare a platter of fresh hot dogs wrapped in baguettes. Chef Heineman has not used any nitrates in the meat, so the dogs, pink at first, look more like weisswurst--a pale greyish tan--once they are cooked. But the flavor is still there. We savor them with mustard and chopped onion and a cup of beer from Brett's keg.
When it is finally time to go, Brett points to a large cardboard box containing our reward for helping: two large, bone-in loin roasts, a slab of ribs, two pint-sized bags of breakfast sausage and an assortment of sausage links. Not a bad haul. Thanks, Brett and Christine. We had a great time.