If there’s anything that makes Mr. Ciccone happy, it’s making sausage. He enjoys working with meat of any kind because it reminds him of growing up in his native Italy where his father was a butcher. Although in his primary career Mr. Ciccone was a maintenance supervisor for his local municipality his true calling was serving the local Italian community with his butchering skills. He also became known for his delicious cured meats and fresh sausage.
When January rolls around, Mr. Ciccone has pork on his mind: prosciutto, capicollo, fresh and dried sausage. In Italy January was the time of year when the fattened family pig was slaughtered and all of the pork products were made over a several day period. Most families raised at least one pig throughout the year, feeding it acorns and chestnuts as well as food scraps from the table and garden. I’ve been told that the pig was even given the dirty dishwater, which didn’t contain soap, so that not a scrap of food went to waste.
January is the ideal time of year for curing meats. The cold dry air serves to retard the growth of the bacteria and molds that would spoil the meat in warmer months. Mid-winter also allows enough cool days for the meat to dry properly before the warmer days of spring.
In his younger years, 94 year old Mr. Ciccone made up to 100 prosciutti as well as several other cured pork products each year. Although he now makes only fresh sausage, he still becomes so focused and engrossed in the process that he can think of little else. You have the feeling that you’re spending the day with the happiest person on earth when Mr. Ciccone is involved in the ritual of sausage making.
Day one of the two day process involves buying the meat. Pork butts, which are the shoulder cuts, are used. Mr. C always speaks directly to the butcher who brings out several cuts for his inspection. The proper fat to meat ratio is important. Too little fat and the sausage will be dry and tasteless. Cuts that are too fatty will require tedious trimming and leave less useable meat. Any extra fat will not be disposed of though. It will be melted and rendered into lard that will be used for cooking.
By the time I arrive early the next morning, the table, cutting board and grinder have been pulled out of storage, his favorite knives have been sharpened, and once his butcher’s apron is on he is ready to get to work.
His experienced eye surveys the meat and he quickly and confidently decides where to trim the fat and then he cuts perfectly sized pieces cleanly from the bone.
He works steadily for over an hour and I can tell he is beginning to tire. I offer to take over the cutting so he can rest. He sits and intently watches every move I make. After less than ten minutes he’s had all that he can tolerate of my less than expert technique. He stands without a word and, with a nod of his head, he tells me that my turn is over and he is back to work.
He loads the cut pieces of meat into the grinder. The grinding process itself goes quickly with his powerful commercial grade machine. In earlier times this process would have been done with a hand grinder and would have been much more laborious and time consuming. Before the hand grinder, the meat would have been cut into tiny pieces entirely by hand using two knives in a cross cut, scissor like fashion.
The meat comes out of the grinder with the perfect mix of fat and lean.
Once all the meat is ground, in go the spices: cracked black pepper, red pepper flakes, fennel seed and salt. No measuring spoons or cups. He adds a little of this, a little of that, seeming to know exactly how much of each is necessary. The spices are mixed into the meat with a lifting, folding, and kneading motion, much like bread dough.
Now comes a critical and delectable step: the tasting. Before the meat mixture is stuffed into the casing it’s still possible to adjust the balance of spices. We fry a few patties and determine that a bit more black pepper is needed.
After working for hours with the cold raw pork, the cooking aroma teases your palate and the taste of the hot fresh sausage is a welcome and well earned treat.
In typical Italian fashion, nothing is wasted and the freshly trimmed bones are used to prepare the customary “half time” lunch of pasta with sauce.
Mr. C is as famous for his cooking as he is for his butchering.
As he assembles what is truly some of the world’s best tomato sauce, he jokes, tells stories and belts out old songs in Italian. Standing over the sauce pot, his hands busy preparing familiar food, all is right with the world. Today life is good and his contentment is infectious.
The rest of the ingredients for our meal are brought out: pasta, cheese for grating, and of course, his homemade wine.
Hungry and a bit tired, we sit down to a perfect plate of pasta. This feast revives us for the second half of our work.
The stentina or casings, which are the small intestines of a pig, were washed the night before and soaked in water to remove the salt they are packed in. It’s necessary to wash them repeatedly and thoroughly before use.
The stentina are fitted over the stuffing tube which has been attached to the grinder. The hopper is filled with the sausage mixture which the machine forces through the tube and into the casing.
Cotton strings are tied at the desired beginning and end of each link, then the casing is cut.
Although it’s been a long day, Mr. Ciccone is pleased with the final product and the ritual of sausage making, as always, is worth the effort.