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Students try smoking in the kitchen
LEE Christmas is telling an eager class about the salt content of brine: "Drop an egg or a potato in your brine. If it floats, there's enough salt.''
Nine students have enrolled for Mr Christmas's one-day masterclass in old-fashioned techniques of curing and smoking meat at the Red Feather Cooking School at Hadspen.
We start with the elephant in the room. It's really a whole dressed pig but it's hard to ignore, hanging there, ready for dissection.
Mr Christmas asks about sensibilities ... does anyone mind seeing a pig carved up?
"I'm a vegan,'' says one student.
There's a pause while everyone registers that her deadpan delivery is an icebreaker.
And so it begins.
The pig is halved and Mr Christmas explains the various cuts and what they are used for.
As he works he talks about the importance of hygiene and the differences between commercial animals and rare breeds.
For one thing, a commercial pig might have a two-millimetre layer of fat but a rare breed, such as the Wessex saddleback that Mr Christmas farms, could have 15-20mm.
He selects the pork belly for our lesson in dry cured bacon.
As you might have guessed, old-school curing requires salt. This recipe suggests one kilogram of kiln-dried salt and the same amount of brown sugar.
The other flavours are crushed mace (husk of nutmeg, but yes, the same stuff that police might spray at a ne'er-do-well), bay leaves, juniper berries, ground black pepper and cloves.
You mix this up in a non-metal container then work it into the belly with your fingers. The dominant aroma of this concoction is nutmeg and its purpose is to draw out the impurities.
You dust it off daily and repeat the treatment for about four days then rinse it, wrap it in muslin and hang it someplace dry. By then your pork belly is dry cured and ready to cook.
We learn other techniques, like air-drying and wet-curing legs of ham, and make a visit to the cold smoker outside where a wet-cured side of bacon is gathering hickory flavour.
Mr Christmas heads off to prepare lunch and there's a chance to chat with the other students.
John and Lou are East Tamar truffle growers interested in raising pigs; Leigh, of Kings Meadows, and Martin, of Longford, are builders who hunt and work together; Wendy, of Longford, Maddison, of Cressy, Vanessa, of Launceston, and Pamela, of Exeter, round out our group.
We sit down to scrumptious smoked Irish pork sausages on mashed potato with caramelised onion and follow it up with a lemon-lime tart.
There's Jansz sparkling, table wine or beer to wash it down and then it's back to our lessons.
The afternoon session starts off with salami. We get to take a couple home so there's keen interest here.
The key, Mr Christmas says, is to have 2.2 per cent salt content.
Lean meat is best and diced back fat is added to the mix, along with red wine and garlic.
A sausage-making machine is employed and class members pitch in to squeeze and tie the salamis.
Pretty soon the students have edible take-home souvenirs.
We embark on other projects, such as burying hams in salt and making salmon gravlax, a Scandinavian technique that originally involved burying the fish in sand to preserve it.
We also ask Mr Christmas about his career and learn that he trained as a chef in Melbourne under Hermann Schneider, of Two Faces fame.
Schneider told him that a chef needed a back-up career so he rode a bicycle to suburban Gardenvale to train as a butcher at the same time.
In Tasmania he raised his Wessex saddlebacks at Kettering and started doing masterclasses for the Agrarian Kitchen cooking school, near New Norfolk.
His move north in December to manage the cooking school and Red Feather Inn at Hadspen has allowed him to follow his paddock-to-plate vocation.
At times, class members worry that they might make a mistake in preparation and ask if they can call for advice. Mr Christmas says yes and like some remote-area doctor suggests sending an email with a photo of the dodgy belly, leg or fillet.
We leave with souvenir home-cured bacon and two salamis each.
They must hang somewhere cool and well-ventilated and should form grey-green, white or even orange mould within weeks.
I explained to a female work colleague that mine had been hung in the fridge and I was waiting expectantly.
"How's your salami?'' she asked a few days later to startled looks from co-workers.
"I'm worried. It still hasn't grown any mould.''
The Bay of Fires in style.
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