Meats curing in the Italian or French tradition give off a particular aroma. Slice into salami, prosciutto or saucisson sec and it will hit you right away: funky, earthy and just a little bit sour. But the curing room at Boulder's Blackbelly Butcher greets everyone entering with something a little different. If you close your eyes and ignore the massive pork legs, primal cuts of beef and slender sausages hanging from the ceiling or resting on racks, you can detect an undercurrent of miso — as though you were holding a steaming bowl of ramen to your nose and taking a long inhale.
There's no miso in the room, though. The smell comes from pork and lamb cuts coated with koji, the mold-infused rice that's also used to make sake. Blackbelly's head butcher, Nate Singer, has been experimenting with koji ever since a friend in the business sent him a sample. Mold and bacteria are a critical ingredient in curing meat, Singer explains; they combine to help keep out bad microorganisms while lowering the water content of the meat, making it safe for human consumption even when aged for months or even years.
"Koji is really good at pulling moisture from the product," the butcher explains. His experiments aren't for sale yet, but Singer notes that the mold and bacteria cultures that spread spontaneously in his curing rooms — through the air and on the hands of the butcher shop's crew — have already begun to change since he brought in the koji. In one room, Italian-style prosciuttos hang alongside dry-aging steaks and a rack of lamb ribs so coated in white koji culture that it resembles the desiccated remains of something you might stumble across on a desert hike. What started out as three separate cultures is slowly evolving into something new that will eventually, and subtly, change the way Blackbelly's finished products smell and taste.
Blackbelly is one of only a handful of restaurants in the metro area that is fully licensed to produce fermented and dry-cured sausages and whole-muscle products in the traditional European manner. Founder Hosea Rosenberg started the program after he opened the restaurant in 2014, but Singer has expanded it in both volume and scope since Rosenberg added the butcher shop next door two years ago. The thirty-year-old butcher is a Wyoming native from a family of meat-cutters; his father runs a steakhouse in Cody, Wyoming, and he's been working with Rosenberg since he was nineteen (with a couple of stints away from Colorado to hone his skills), starting back when the chef was just launching the Blackbelly brand, first with a food truck and then with a catering company.
For Blackbelly Butcher customers, the gleaming cases present a familiar view: raw pork, beef and lamb in ruddy hues on one side and vacuum-sealed cured meats on the other. But there's more here than meets the eye. That tidy pack of "coppa di testa" is actually the face, cheeks and tongue of a pig rolled into a tight cylinder and cured into an enticing spiral of pink meat separated by bands of pure white fat. It's the result of years of teamwork between Blackbelly and three regional farmers and ranchers: Carter Country Meats; Buckner Family Farm and McDonald Family Farm.
Carter Country raises cattle on thousands of acres of ranch land near Ten Sleep, Wyoming (where the cattle far outnumber its population of 304 humans); Singer visits the ranch regularly to talk to third-generation family members about what the cattle are fed and how they are growing before they are slaughtered. All of it affects the flavor of the meats sold at his butcher shop and at the restaurant. Most steers are slaughtered before they reach thirty months; in fact, the USDA has strict laws regulating the sale of meat from older animals. Singer notes that the potential for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (or mad cow disease) increases beyond that age, and most industrial slaughterhouses can't guarantee that spine and brain tissue of the cow (the main culprits the USDA is watching for) won't come in contact with the rest of the meat.
Yet behind the glass is a gorgeously marbled steak from a retired dairy cow somewhere between five and eight years of age; Singer extols the buttery flavor and health benefits of a fat rich in beta-carotene that comes from the cow's diet of wild grasses and other plants that grow on the ranch's rolling hills. By maintaining a close relationship with Carter Country and seeing exactly how and where every cow is raised and slaughtered, Singer can offer safer, more flavorful meats from humanely raised animals.
Lamb from Buckner in Boulder County and hogs from McDonald near the small town of Brush receive similar attention. Behind the counter and in full view of customers, a team of butchers sets to work dismantling a whole lamb. While this may be off-putting to those accustomed to the tidy rows of Styrofoam packages at the grocery store, Rosenberg and Singer want their customers to know where the meat comes from.
Blackbelly's second aging room, where hanging meats are moved after the initial cure, gives off a far deeper, cheesier smell. Several culatellos are approaching maturity at two years old; other pork products come from heritage breeds that Singer works with on a small scale, whether a compact ham from a New Zealand kunekune pig (about a third the size of the more common Berkshire or Duroc) or an enormous slab cured in the manner of French jambon from a sow that weighed 1,200 pounds.
Next door at the restaurant, chef Brad Daniels and general manager Geoff Barrett were recently hired to help run things while Rosenberg focuses on his newer restaurant, Santo, across town. Daniels, an East Coaster who most recently worked at Osteria in Philadelphia, says that coming into such a well-thought-out program has been exciting. "It was like Christmas," he says of his first few months using the steaks and cured meats from the butcher shop. But it's not just a matter of serving T-bones and tenderloins; the list of what's available changes with every dinner service, since animals are brought in and butchered whole instead of having a set number of specific cuts brought in in boxes. "This is one of the hardest places in town for servers to work," Barrett says — not because of the environment, but because of the number of products that come and go on the menu and the changes to the nightly board that occur each time a customer orders a specific cut. The team members must have in-depth knowledge of all the charcuterie.
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The dedication to locally grown produce adds to the complexity of cooking here; Daniels notes that greens and lettuces come in and go out of season quickly in Colorado, and Boulder County farmers are continuously experimenting with new crops. He's looking forward to adding agretti (saltwort, which gets its flavor by pulling salt from the soil) and borage leaf (which tastes like oysters) to salads this summer. As at the butcher shop, nothing is wasted; even vegetable peels and trimmings are cooked down to ash and mixed with the sea salt that graces every table.
Rosenberg started the ball rolling when he opened Blackbelly four years ago as what could have easily been written off as just another "farm-to-table" restaurant. But sustainability and whole-animal utilization (don't miss the "marrow burger" before it comes off the lunch menu in a month or so) aren't just buzzwords here; the chef has assembled a team that's visibly exhilarated and motivated by using innovative methods to reduce waste and celebrate local farming and ranching.
You can smell that exhilaration in the air.
Blackbelly and Blackbelly Butcher are located at 1606 Conestoga Street in Boulder. The butcher shop serves breakfast and lunch from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday. The restaurant is open from 4 to 9 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday and 4 to 10 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Visit Blackbelly's website for more information.