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Bob Hancock on Curing Hams in a Bakery

Photo: John Nation

Bob Hancock has been the undisputed king of Louisville bakers since he opened Blue Dog Bakery and Café in 1997. His focus and passion have provided the city's restaurants as well as stores and farmers' markets with baguettes, croissants, cookies and many other marvelous baked goods. Bob's dissatisfaction with anything falling below perfection led to breeding, raising and personally overseeing the processing of heritage breed pigs. Bob farrows and raises heritage Red Wattle and Mulefoot pigs on a former horse farm, where they graze, dig and refresh old pasturage until it is time to call them in for their intended purpose. While much of these pigs becomes chops, loins and other easily recognizable parts for Blue Dog plates, Bob also makes his own charcuterie. Curing salumi in a bakery isn't the simplest of procedures, but Bob allowed Eater to follow him through his compartmentalized cure house, asking questions about his quest for a perfectly cured ham that straddles the styles of both Italy and Kentucky.

Eater: How long have you been making your own hams?
Bob Hancock: I've been curing meat for about five years, since I've been raising the pigs. I've just gotten to the point where I think I know what I'm doing.

Has it been popular?
We seem to be working through all the meat I'm curing, so…

Why did you start?
I wanted to get charcuterie as good I can get in Europe. The other part is that I've finally crossbred pigs to get the kind of meat I want to be able to cure.

Is there a difference between Italian hams and Kentucky country hams?
There is less salt in the Italian ham. To me, Kentucky country hams were never meant to be sliced and eaten in a raw state. The preparation is to soak, then boil, then bake before it's ready to eat. The salt comes back out through soaking. The Italian style is to not oversalt—the pieces are only in salt for 14 or 15 days, where an American ham of the same size will be in salt for 30-35 days.

But people are eating Kentucky ham like prosciutto.
I have had Mr. Benton's hams carved like prosciutto, and they have higher salt but they're still pretty good. But ham in the United States isn't that much of a big ticket item any more. Peoples' palates have been ruined by the salty country ham.

Tell us about your daily ham check.
First thing in the morning I come in from feeding the pigs, put out a few fires, then go into my little routine of going around and checking on the places I have my meat in. I have temperature and humidity sensors in locations where I have meat right now, so I can kind of monitor what's going on. I have a pretty elaborate system of hanging. If I think some of them are getting too dry, I will also bag them to control air flow.

What else?
I will massage them with lard to remoisten the meat, or if it's as dry as I want it I apply sugna, which is a mixture of rice flour and lard. That puts a seal on it.

What's the point of this process?
I try to emulate the way an old barn would work. I alternate humidity and temperature the way it would be in Kentucky during daytime and nighttime. I'm taking a feed off an AC unit, and I'll open a vent to let the cool air in, or shut it off to make it hotter or more humid.

Why not age hams in a barn?
Nobody gets to age hams in a barn anymore except Nancy Newsom [of Newsom's Country Hams in Princeton, KY]. She's grandfathered in—she's the only one that can do an ambient temperature curing process the old way.

How much effort goes into making hams?
These whole cuts you have to sit for a year, maybe two. There's more risk for something to go wrong. You could get bone sour, you could get bacteria.

One of the problems I've had is the way Americans kill animals. They hang them on gambrels, make an incision into the meat. That leaves an avenue for bacteria to get in. I've had to whack off areas where a slaughterhouse hasn't had their gambrels as sanitary as they thought.

Any other odd stuff?
I get a fair amount of greenish blue mold. I prefer it to be kind of steely grey and white, but with all the bread yeast and everything flying around in here I'm going to get some different color molds. I get any mold, I just clean off the pieces with a vinegar and water solution and let them dry down.

Does that make you wish for a barn instead of a bakery?
If you take a look at Nancy Newsom's hams when they're ready to go to market, they're as green as gourds. They also wipe them down before they ship them off to chefs.

Is there any other European charcuterie you'd like to try?
There's a guy I visited in Italy who cures culatello. He roughs it out, brines it, sews it into a bladder. He hangs them in caves underneath an old fort or monastery along the Po river for like five years.

What's it taste like?
It's like stinky cheese. You don't know if you love it or hate it, but you can't stop eating it.
· Blue Dog Bakery & Café [Official Site]
· All Eater Blue Dog Bakery & Café Coverage [~ELOU~]
· All The Five Days of Meat Coverage [~ELOU~]

Blue Dog Bakery and Cafe

2868 Frankfort Avenue, Louisville, KY 40206 502-899-9800 Visit Website