The Full Flavor Of Spanish Chorizo

Farmhouse Chorizo-Making
Regional Flavors
The Chorizo Industry:a Long Tradition
Quality in an Age of Change
Export: The French Phenomenon

... observed Alexander Dumas during his journey around Spain in1846-7, chorizos are made for as many days as there are in the year, thatis to say, 365 "chorizos and another 50 for the days when there areguests." Perhaps Dumas was exaggerating; not all families could haveafforded a "chorizo every day for the stew pot. But today rusty-redchorizos aromatic with red pepper are still to be found in most Spanishlarders. Full of flavor and needing no preparation, they are a perfecttraditional fast-food for hurried modern times.

Chorizo as we know them, with their characteristic reddish tinge, seemto have been a 16th century invention from the westerly region of Extremadura,where the first seeds for red peppers from the New World had been plantedby Jeronimo monks at Guadalupe. By 1611, a recipe had been published inroyal cook Francisco Martinez Montino's book Arte de cocina. "Youwill take swine meat that shall be more lean than fat, and put it in amarinade of only wine, and a little vinegar, and the meat should be cutin slices; the marinade needs to be scant, no more than to cover; seasonit with spices, and salt, and the meat shall be in it for twenty four hours;and then stuff the chorizos, the intestines are to be a little fat, andpass them through boiling water. These keep all the year ...."

Whether his spices included the pulp from dried red peppers is not clear.But many of the hallmarks of today's chorizos are there: the coarsely-cutmeatiness, the marination of the meat with seasonings and vinegar to helpstart fermentation, the final curing throughout the following year. Bythe 19th century, when the pepper growing regions began to mill finelypowdered red pepper, or pimenton, the recipe was fixed.

Farmhouse Chorizo-Making [TOP]

In the intervening centuries, chorizo recipes leave been passed down byword of mouth as part of the traditions of the matanza, or farmhouse pig-killing,which once provided country families' winter meat supply.

Today, home matanzas still flourish but more as a fiesta than a necessity.The chorizo-making, along with ham salting and making of other types ofsausage, is spread over several days and the work is shared among familyand neighbors. The day before the pig is killed, the seasonings will beprepared: the garlic, salt and herbs crushed and mixed with the sweet orhot paprika. Once the pig is butchered come the long tasks of choppingthe meat and fat -today, a mincing machine is used and washing the intestinesfor- sausage skins. The seasoned chopped meat, or picadillo, is then leftovernight -or sometimes for two days- for the flavors to develop and forthe meat's natural lactic fermentation to begin. Sometimes a little wineis added to help it on its way. Finally, before the meat is piled intoa sausage making machine to fill the skins, a trial quantity is fried andtasted to check the seasoning. Tied by string into lengths and prickedto let out any air bubbles, the chorizos are then hung to cure, or air-dry,some times starting off with an initial smoking in the chimney. Some areeaten fresh, that is raw cooking sausages, but most are fully cured andeater sparingly over the Winter and Spring months. As haphazard as farmhousechorizo-making can appear, it is a highly skilled process. The proportionsof meat to fat, the meat's cut ,and seasoning, the times ,and. temperaturesfor curing may be judged by eye, but behind that lies the practice of manygenerations.

Regional Flavors [TOP]
And as with so much Spanish produce, it is also a highly inventive process.Within the regional range -but setting aside family secrets there are somefifty or so recognized chorizo types from around the country. If you aretraveling in Spain, it is worth looking out for these since they includesome of Europe's most varied and original charcuterie. From regions withgame, such as Asturias or Huelva in Andalusia, come venison and wild-boarchorizos. These originally developed as a way of making sure none of thehigh-energy pork fat would go to waste after the lean eat was finishedup, but today they are gourmet products. Other popular regional specialtiesbased on the same idea are the patatero rojo from Fxtremadura, which includescooked potato, the Galician ceboleiro, with onion and smoked for a monthbefore curing, and the very finely cut Pamplona chorizo, which containssome beef. Other chorizos are marked out by their seasonings. While pimenton,finely ground red pepper or paprika, is an infallible defining mark, itmay be sweet or spicy-hot and smoked or sun-dried. Apart from acting asa natural flavoring and coloring, its essential oils also help conservethe meat. The most Spanish of all spices, brought back from the New Worldby Columbus in seed form, the pepper is produced either in the valley ofLa Vera in Extremadura, where it is smoke-dried before milling, or in southeastern Murcia, where it is traditionally sun-dried. Often, the two typesare mixed to give at balanced flavor.

But alongside the pimenton you will find a blend of other flavors: perhapsgarlic, oregano, the pulp from dried peppers, aniseed or coriander seed.Andalusian food writer Pablo Amate divides regional chorizos by these flavorsinto four main geographical families: smoked front northern Atlantic regions;spiced from the Mediterranean; those with most piment6n from central Castile;and Andalusian or Extremeno versions pungent with garlic and herbs.

Then, the chorizo may vary in size, depending on the skins used as casing.Generally speaking, the coarseness of the meat cut is also in proportionto the skin size. A morcon, for example, bulges with curves and chunksof meat inside the pig's large intestine while Salamanca chorizo, is madein large straight skins the size of a church candle. In some areas, thereis also a tradition of potting the cured chorizos in pork fat or oliveoil, or a mixture of the two, to conserve them at their best for the restof the year.

Last but by no means least comes cborizo iberico, made with the deliciouslynutty sweet meat of native black Iberian pigs. The high level of fat finelyfiltered through the flesh gives charcuterie made from it exceptionallyrich flavors and a satisfying unctuous texture. A luxury product uniqueto Spain, it is made in limited quantities but is to be found around thecountry in top-quality restaurants and charcutiers.

The Chorizo Industry:a Long Tradition [TOP]
While chorizo-making remained a farmhouse tradition in many regions, itquickly grew into a small scale craft industry in areas close to the sourceof the raw materials. By the 17th century, the small towns of Candelarioin Salamanca province and Montanchez in Extremadura were famed for theirchorizos, which were sold in big cities around the country by travelingstreet hawkers called choriceros. A portrait of one of them, Tio Rico,which was done by Goya's son-in-law, Ramon Bayeu, as a tapestry cartoon,hangs in the Prado museum. By the 1840s, some 8,000 native black Iberianpigs a year were killed in Candelario every winter and visits were madeto the makers' houses to check the chorizos were made of pure pork.

But it was not until the middle of this century that small family butchersbegan to grow into today's specialized cooked and cured meat companies.Today, a total of over some thousand small and large companies produce64,000 tons of chorizo,5 -around 40% of Spanish industrial charcuturieproduction- every year to satisfy the national market. Chorizos are notonly added to regional stews or eaten in sandwiches as a tea-time snack,but are also one of the most popular tapas. Remarkably, despite the changein scale and investment, the final product has remained close to the originalarticle. On any Spanish charcuturie counter, you will find side by sidehalf a dozen. or more types of chorizo -say, from Salamanca, Cantimpalos,Pamplona and the Rioja- made by specialist manufacturers in their respectiveregional styles. in part this authenticity reflects the high quality expectedby Spanish buyers, the continuing competition from farmhouse chorizos andthe strict specifications of government food regulations. But independently,often because their roots are in family butchers, many of today's industrialproducers have kept a sense of tradition as the basis of quality. Theyhave harnessed a mechanization and scientific monitoring of the last decadesin order to improve rather than alter their products.

Quality in an Age of Change[TOP]
So today, while the quality of Spanish industrial chorizo still rests ontraditional prime ingredients, nothing is left to the eye.

Now the sausage meat ingredients -mixed lean and fat pork, top-qualitypimenton, fresh garlic, salt and dried herbs- all undergo laboratory analysisof samples for bacteria and quality control. Some leading companies haveextended this by adding pig-rearing and feed manufacturing to their productionchain. The only ingredients new to industrial chorizo are preservatives.During the 1980s additives were drastically reduced as legislation wassteadily tightened, but basic minimum preservatives such as nitrifyingsalts are essential to control the bacteria provoked by the seasonings,especially the pimenton.

A similar combination of old and new can also be found in the makingprocess. Essentially, the method is the same as Montino's or a farmhouseone: the meat is chopped, mixed 'with seasonings and left to marinate fora day before being stuffed into skins.

But today huge steel mincers and mixing vats on wheels have replacedthe old iron, wooden and pottery utensils; seasonings are measured downto the last milligram; the rhythm of the meat's lactic fermentation isregulated by a yeast-like additive to prevent excess acidity, gas or freeferment; and the sausage-skins are vacuum-stuffed to prevent air enteringbefore being machine-tied and stapled. The skins themselves, which havereplaced the intestines, are made from natural products, usually vegetablecellulose and animal collagen. The single biggest change comes at the curingstage, with vast electrically air cooled curing chambers replacing Haphazardnatural air-drying. They revolutionized chorizo-making when they were firstintroduced from the 1950s onwards because they allowed year round productionand. curing during the hot summer months. Today, they are computer-controlledand also allow fine tuning of the temperature and humidity; during themonth to six weeks curing the moisture level is increased gradually sothat the chorizos natural water content is drawn very slowly to the surface,to prevent the meat from drying out. But at the same time these darkenedchambers keep their own microflora, just like a farmhouse cellar, whichis vital to the finished chorizosí flavors.

When the chorizos are ready, they are taken down and packed into sealedbags filled with an inert gas which prevents further curing and dryingfor up to three months. Increasingly, this packaging is geared towardssale in self-service outlets, using transparent bags around country-styleloops (sartas), slicing sticks (velas), strings of smaller chorizos (ristras),or cut slices (lonchas) labeled with one of the four Spanish quality gradingwhich lay down maximum levels of damp, fat, meat protein and carbohydrates.Only the top two qualities, Extra (with minimum 30% meat protein) and Primera(with minimum 26% meat protein), are exported.

Export: The French Phenomenon[TOP]

Outside Spain, the French are Europe's biggest chorizo lovers. They pickedup the taste in Algeria where a few of the many Spaniards who emigratedat the beginning of the century built factories and adapted their recipesto make spicy-hot, finely cut chorizos suiting local taste. Such is thepopularity of this chorizo in France today that some 7-9,000 tons mostof it still spicy and finely cut- are manufactured there every year foreating fully cured, usually sliced up as a tapa or aperitif. However, sinceSpanish manufacturers began exporting in 1989-90 the French have begunto take to the genuine Iberian chorizo as well. In 1993, some 1,500 tonsof Spanish chorizo -60% of it spicy- were exported to France and it isthought that over the next ten years that quantity will double. AlthoughSpanish producers have adapted their product to French tastes, there areimportant differences. All Extra and Primera Spanish chorizo is made frompure pork, with an average of 20-30% fat content to allow the traditionallycoarse, meaty cut. Chorizo made in France, with a fine cut, allows a higherfat content, averaging an estimated 45% fat according to the CIC (Centred'Information de Charcuteries). it also allows the frequent use of 'melange',that is, sausage meat mixed with beef or other meats mixed with the otherpork.

Elsewhere, the potential of export markets is only now being explored.Large-scale manufacturers, such as Fuertes -selling as El Pozo-, Campofrio,Casademont, Oscar Mayer and Hesperia de Alimentaci6n are now establishingsubsidiaries abroad in major markets Such as Portugal and France, whileworking through distributors elsewhere. Four of these companies have joinedforces for a unified three-year promotional campaign in France, startingin 1995, with the possibility of its extension to other markets later.Another 3,000 tons go to other EC countries -principally Portugal, Belgium,Germany and Britain- while Russia and eastern Europe are other emergingmarkets.

At the same time that exports are growing, they are also diversifying.In most European countries, it's now possible to find the softer vacuum-packedgrilling and semi-cured cooking chorizo in supermarkets as well as top-qualityIberico, large lean Salamanca. Spanish manufacturers are also making smokedPortuguese style chorizo specially for the export market while farmhouseproducers in the Rioja are producing chorizos jarred in oil or fat. Inthis respect, there is no problem with developing their range of products.The only problem would be to know where to begin.

Vicky Hayward is a freelance features, journalist,travel writer and editor. she has written two guidebooks (about the CostaBlanca and Madrid, where she lines') and published numerous articles inthe Spanish and British press.

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