Chef David Bracha makes his way to a freestanding wine cooler located in the dining room of his Design District eatery, Oak Tavern. Nearby, cooks and waiters prepare for the Friday dinner rush. Burners are topped with pans of sautéed mushrooms. Pots are filled to the brim with slow-cooked sauces. In the wait station, servers polish water glasses and turn them upside down.
But Bracha is oblivious. The blue-eyed chef is focused only on the cooler.
He opens the glass door and makes a hand gesture, coaxing me to step in closer. Inside are rolls of salami finocchiona, soppressata, bresaola, and coppa — all tagged and labeled with names and dates. "Smell that," he says.
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Lunch Monday to Friday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.;brunch Sunday 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; and dinner Monday to Thursday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 p.m. to midnight, and Sunday 5:30 to 10 p.m.
Lunch Monday to Friday noon to 3 p.m.; dinner Sunday to Wednesday 6 to 10:30 p.m. and Thursday to Saturday 6 p.m. to midnight.
I poke my head into the fridge. The pungent, tangy scent of aged sausage envelopes my senses. It's an overwhelming mix of pork meat, fat, and aromatics like fennel, garlic, and black pepper. Bracha's mouth curves into an eager grin. "Wouldn't that make a great salami perfume?" he asks. It's unclear whether he is kidding.
Charcuterie — the craft of curing, salting, and smoking meats for preservation — is a practice rooted in history. It originated thousands of years ago with the Chinese and ancient Egyptians, then Greeks and Romans, who studied and perfected the science of preserving meat with salt. Covering animal parts in a dry "cure," they learned, removed moisture from cells. The process stunted bacterial growth and allowed meats to be kept for extended periods of time.
In 15th-century France, charcuterie blossomed from a practice of necessity into a full-fledged art form. Charcutiers mastered butchery and began selling head cheese, pâtes, sausages, and bacon. Divisions of the craft developed, including fresh charcuterie (softer products like pâte, confit, boudin, mortadella, and rillettes that are usually refrigerated) and dried charcuterie (aged products like bresaola, coppa, guanciale, salami, and soppressata, which can be kept for a longer period). The tradition spread to Italy, Spain, and elsewhere. Charcuterie products became symbols of each country's epicurean and cultural traditions.
Today, finding locally crafted charcuterie is more difficult in the United States than in Europe. Although meats cured by industrial producers are readily available in grocery stores, handcrafted renditions are rare. "In the United States, we've practically lost the craft of charcuterie," explains Bracha. "In fact, 75 percent of the charcuterie in the world is consumed by Italy, France, and Spain alone."
But things are changing. Since the 2000s, chefs in cities such as New York, Detroit, Houston, and San Francisco have launched a renaissance of the age-old craft. In Miami, charcuterie is also on the rise.
This past July, one visitor gave the local food scene a push. Brian Polcyn, Detroit-based chef and co-author of Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing, came to South Florida for a two-day course at Larry Kline Meats in Deerfield Beach. Notable chefs, such as Yardbird Southern Table and Bar's Jeff McInnis, 1500 Degrees' Paula DaSilva, and Michael Genuine Food & Drink's Bradley Herron, took a lesson in curing meat. Now, months later, the Miami charcuterie craze continues to swell.
At Michael's Genuine Food & Drink, chef de cuisine Bradley Herron lures me into the restaurant's wine closet. Behind closed doors, the 27-year-old chef shows off his bounty of hams, pork jowls, aged butters, and chunks of lard. The hanging meat and dairy products fill a tight space next to bottles of California petite Syrahs and Mosel Valley Rieslings.
Herron's crown jewel is the prosciutto, a ham made with heritage Hereford pork sourced from local Florida supplier Palmetto Creek Farms. The hind leg is cured only with sea salt, then dried for 300 or 400 days, or until the ham has lost 30 percent of its initial weight.
The slow pace of charcuterie explains why Herron thinks the process is more about patience than basic techniques. "Anyone can just add salt to meat and hang it. But good charcuterie is about understanding the tips and tricks that come through practice and being able to troubleshoot it all," he says.
Herron maintains a detailed journal with weights, dates, and conditions of his aging meats. He also samples his products regularly until they achieve a proper consistency. "If you pull something down earlier, you can get a creamier consistency." This handcrafted process is about personalization of both flavor and texture.
While developing Oak Tavern's charcuterie menu, Bracha faced a serious challenge: mastering the art of forcemeats. This category refers to mixtures of ground meat that are emulsified with fat, such as salami and soppressata. These are made with ground pork combined with fatback — subcutaneous pork fat — spices, and pink salt. The latter is a curing salt that contains a small amount of sodium nitrite. The nitrites prevent the growth of harmful bacteria and make the meat resistant to oxidation. The sausages are then aged 40 to 50 days.
This category is challenging, particularly in Miami's tropical weather. "When meat is ground up and stuffed into casings, air pockets are created. This is the perfect environment for bacteria to grow, especially in our humidity," Bracha says. This can result in spoiled salami.
His solution required precise control of ingredients and environment. To prevent bacterial growth, Bracha adds Bactoferm to the ground meat products. It contains live bacteria that prevent growth of harmful microorganisms.
Inside the restaurant's curing chamber, Bracha keeps a dehumidifier and humidity meter. Ideal levels are in the 60 to 65 percent humidity range — not the 70 to 80 percent that is standard in South Florida's great outdoors. Temperatures are typically kept around 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
After discovering the craft, the chef began making bigger plans for his charcuterie. Now he dreams of opening a specialty shop with custom-built chambers where he can hang larger cuts like hams.
The craft of curing and smoking meats is not reserved solely for fine-dining restaurants. At Josh's Deli in Surfside, owner Joshua Marcus offers corned pork butts, 14-day-cured pastrami, seven-day-cured beef tongue, and house-smoked bacon.
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The bacon-making begins with a cut of pork belly, which is cured for seven days in a mixture of pink salt, salt, juniper berries, coriander, red-pepper flakes, onion powder, smoked paprika, thyme, and garlic powder. It is flipped daily, then smoked for three hours with apple and hickory wood.
Like Bracha, Marcus hopes to one day take his love for preserved meats to a higher level. He longs to visit Italy, apprentice with master charcutiers, and return home to open an Italian-style sub shop.
The rise of locally produced charcuterie signals something more than just these chefs' personal passion. It symbolizes a more mature outlook for the city's dining scene. "Everything in the Miami scene is evolving in the right direction, and this is just one of the steps that we are taking into becoming a restaurant town where different things are made properly and by hand," Marcus says.
Adds Bracha: "This is really just all about going back to basics."