A Celebration of Charcuterie in Israel

While the term charcuterie may no longer be alien to many Israelis, small businesses that engage in the artisanal production of processed meats have a hard time keeping afloat.

Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
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Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

“When I started making sausages, people said I was crazy. It makes me happy that today there are nevertheless more people who want to learn the art,” says the charcutier Alan Talmor, at the start of the sausage workshop held recently in his Bat Yam atelier. The eight participants fixed their gazes on the sausage-maker, who sat at the head of the table, and listened attentively.

“I began working in the kitchens of Tel Aviv restaurants back in ’87. I was there during the Italian wave, when everybody was opening semi-Italian restaurants, and also around the time that Israeli restaurateurs and chefs were discovering seafood; until then, absent any demand, fishermen used to distribute shrimp for free. The turning point was when I was working at Nir Ilan’s Barbaresco, a wine bar. We served a menu of appetizers alongside the wine menu. Today this is considered obvious, but then it was absolutely innovative, and we ourselves prepared charcuterie items like the country pate or rillettes. I had grown up in France and Belgium, as my parents had been Israeli emissaries there, so the flavors were not foreign to me, but I myself had much to learn.”

Talmor downs a glass of beer, the long explanations parching the throat of a man of action who is unaccustomed to giving speeches. He continues this walk down memory lane. “One day, I went out for lunch at the venerable eatery, Haim’s Romanian Grill, which was next door to Barbaresco on Dizengoff. I ordered a traditional Romanian sausage, and Haim asked me if I myself had ever made sausage. Something about it tempted me, and I decided to try. At the time, a girl named Carmen was working in the kitchen. She came from a little village in Romania and was familiar with the tradition of raising and slaughtering pigs.

“I ordered my books by mail on the subject, and within a few weeks my first self-produced sausage was on the menu. In 2000, I left the restaurant kitchens, seeking to escape from a life of slavery, and decided to set up a business that would be devoted to the making of quality sausages. I bought my first meat grinder and set out on my own. At first in my home kitchen, and then, when I could no longer deal with the bureaucratic tangle of acquiring a manufacturer’s permit − the State of Israel is a cruel place for small-scale producers who are compelled to abide by the same regulations used for large factories − I found myself a back room of a meat-packing plant in Rishon Letzion, where my business is situated to this day.”

Standing in the corner of the room, near the containers of home-brewed beer, is a see-through refrigerator with a glass door. It’s cold inside ‏(the thermometer reads 12 degrees Celsius‏) and also very moist. But in the dark niche, as in the still-lifes of the Spanish painter Juan Sanchez Cotan, one can see various types of sausages and cuts of meat hanging on ropes and ripening.

Talmor goes on to describe the history of charcuterie: “Before there were refrigerators and other modern techniques, salt was one of the most popular methods of preserving. Everyone preserved meat by means of salt. The differences between the techniques and the final products stemmed from differences of climate and geography. Sausages like salami and prosciutto developed in hot and dry locales.”

Daphna Hertz, Talmor’s partner and a translator by profession, sets down on the wooden table platters overflowing with sliced home sausages: coppa, pork shoulder that has undergone dry pickling in salt and spices; bresaola, a beef sausage pickled in red wine that has an astounding purple color and white veins of fat that resemble tree roots; dry chorizo which, in keeping with the Spanish custom, is seasoned with smoked paprika; sujuk, a strongly flavored Armenian-Turkish sausage that is spiced with cumin and garlic; different sorts of salami ‏(until that moment, none of those present had ever tasted a local salami whose flavor and aroma truly conjured up the rich musty fragrance of that ripened in European cellars and larders‏); and also pancetta; fuet; country pate; and gorgeous pink-red strips of corned beef.

The charcuterie celebration also includes outstanding pickled cabbage, pickled cucumbers and all sorts of other homemade pickled vegetables ‏(“Pickled vegetables, like everything related to the processes of fermentation and preservation, are another fetish of mine,” says the sausage-maker self-consciously upon hearing the compliments‏).

We eat and we drink − wine and Amstel beer brewed in Jordan − while listening to Talmor’s captivating and methodical explanations. Now the practical part begins: No one stops gorging themselves even for a second, but the time has come to prepare fresh sausages − and the diners sit around the table and seem to be expressing great affection for one another.

Those present include a mother and son of Russian descent, fiery and magnificent souls with a huge passion for good food ‏(“We immigrated to Israel from Tashkent, but the family went to Uzbekistan from the Ukraine during World War II,” says the mother. “My father prepared everything by himself − bread, cheeses, pickled vegetables, frankfurters and sausages − and we came here to learn how to follow in his footsteps”‏); a restaurant owner from the south with a keen interest in mastering the art of sausage-making; a young foodie who dragged her boyfriend − who keeps kosher − with her ‏(“Is there pork in this one?” murmured the poor fellow as each platter was passed around; Talmor repeatedly apologized to him and then apologized in the name of the god who forbade his believers from eating pork, but did create the pig with its incomparably well-suited padding of fat for the production of all sorts of sausages‏).

“I was always interested in seeing who would be the first deviant to try and push chopped meat into intestines,” says the sausage-maker who, together with his pupils then prepared a Mexican chorizo sausage with chipotle pepper and scallion; a classic German Bratwurst; and a sausage made from sheep meat and local herbs that he calls “Bedouin sausage.”

During the workshop, the typical fears and concerns about preparing fresh sausages at home quickly dissipate − the process is neither complicated nor particularly expensive − and all of the participants are enchanted by the ancient hands-on art. “This is how sausages should look: plump and merry, and kindling a love of life in the hearts of those who eat them,” said one participant as the warm, fresh delicacies were placed on the table.

Despair and renewal

The first article of mine to appear in any newspaper was published in September 2003, and was dedicated to Alan Talmor and the art of meat processing. Almost no one had ever heard the word “charcuterie,” as was politely and resolutely explained to me by my editor, and a large part of the article was devoted to the question of why there was no well-developed charcuterie culture in Israel.

One decade later, and 13 years after Alan began working in the industry, it is still difficult to speak of a true revolution. While the term charcuterie may no longer be alien to many Israelis, small businesses that engage in the artisanal production of processed meats have a hard time keeping afloat. Other pioneers in this realm, who started out around the same time as Talmor, have vanished from the local food scene.

A year and a half ago, Talmor was also on the verge of closing up shop, even though the hand-made sausages he produces are currently sold at more than 100 restaurants and bars in the central part of the country.

“I, with my French background, thought that the business, which bore the legend ‘Since 2000,’ would be passed down to my children, but it is very difficult here in Israel,” says the gentle-soul romantic, who loves hard rock, sausages and beer ‏(not necessarily in that order‏). When asked why, he hems and haws and tries to phrase his comments delicately: “It is very hard to be a supplier in the State of Israel. The biggest problem is the ethics of payment. I could no longer stand the pressure and unease of collecting what people owed me. Months passed after the sausages had been consumed − and I still hadn’t received the money owed to me. I was suffering. I no longer enjoyed it.

He considered closing down, but suffered from the thought of what would happen to the workers on the payroll. Then the solution presented itself. Nissim Yitzhak, a trusted veteran employee, came in as a partner and took upon himself both the daily production work and the contact with clients. Talmor is still involved in the development of new recipes; the two partners now produce nearly 15 types of sausages, with more still to come. But now Talmor is free to engage in his creative work − as embodied in the remarkable refrigerator filled with sausages he has prepared in his home kitchen over the past few months − as well as in teaching.

“Over the years, I have taught courses and given charcuterie lessons in cooking schools. The small and intimate workshops that I give in my home kitchen, which has become an atelier, were conceived only in the past few months, and I enjoy them immensely,” he adds.

Next up is a lengthier workshop comprising several weekly meetings, at which participants will learn to prepare sausages. Also, Talmor will be opening of an additional sausage stall in central Tel Aviv ‏(his first one was opened at the Old Jaffa market‏).

Workshops on preparing home-made sausages ‏(NIS 300 per participant‏) at Alsace ‏(Alan Talmor Sausages‏), Tel. 050-7286677 or 054-3155551
http://alan-talmor-sausages.co.il

Bresaola. Air-dried salted beef.Credit: Dan Perez
Alan Talmor. He and his partner produce nearly 15 types of sausages, with more still to come.
Sausages sizzling in a pan. Credit: Dan Perez
Salami hanging in Talmor’s special refrigerator. Credit: Dan Perez
Corned beef. Gorgeous.Credit: Dan Perez
Pancetta. Fatty but tasty.Credit: Dan Perez

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