One of the forefathers of Pacific Northwest cuisine, Greg Higgins’s name has become synonymous with local, seasonal, sustainable cuisine. His training in classic European meat curing and cheese making has established him as an expert on the craft of charcuterie, so much so that he was asked by Portland-based aid agency Mercy Corps to spend three weeks this past November teaching sausage making to cooks in Mongolia.
With one major twist … Charcutier by definition means a maker of cooked pig. In Mongolia, however, pork is a rarity. So instead of pancetta or prosciutto, or any of the other forms of his heavily pork-focused Pacific Northwest style of charcuterie, Higgins made goat hams and camel salami, as well as other sausages made from sheep, horses, an occasional yak, and sometimes beef.
“These people have the world’s greatest wealth and abundance of grass-fed livestock, yet struggle on many other economic levels,” he says. “Mongolia, a poor country with a substantial amount of mineral resources, is changing rapidly,” he writes. “Foreign investments and development are driving tremendous alterations in the status quo. People are moving to the city—families to adapt to a modern urban existence and younger generations for education and future employment opportunities. With these social, cultural, and economic changes come dietary ones. Some making inroads, like fast food, are not necessarily so desirable. But others, like the evolution of cooking through the introduction of other cuisines and an integration of local ingredients, can be positive.”
Is there a signature Pacific Northwest charcuterie style?
Honestly, a lot of it is still in its early stages. The expertise is still pretty rudimentary. Skill levels need to come up. It’s a blessing and a curse. Access [to good quality meats] is what’s pushing most of this.
I started [making charcuterie and cheese] in Alsace and have built my library around those traditions—my library has books dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries. There’s really not much depth here or elsewhere around the country. There are so many intricacies to the craft. It’s not done by chefs, but specialists. Most chefs are only able to devote a small portion of their day to creating a highly specialized product. So, some people are doing some good things, but there’s not a recognizable roster yet.
I hope it’s not a fad. In today’s food world, I stay away from the dish or style of the moment. You can’t develop a recognizable cooking style — what I’d call “cuisine” — without a solid foundation, and charcuterie is a foundation for developing a good regional cuisine.
I hope [charcuterie] is here to stay, although a lot of the people doing it haven’t had the opportunity to learn from people with a high level of skill. There’s a science and an art to it. If you can integrate those two, it can be something wonderful.