On a blustery, cold Sunday at HOPE Market, the aroma and smoke draw you toward Ben Runkle's booth. There's a steady line of customers at the Salt & Time Artisanal Salumi and Pickles booth, crowding around a massive Weber Ranch Kettle grill. That particular day, Runkle was offering a couple of hot sandwiches that were very popular with the crowd: a mortadella-style frankfurter in a bun with a slice of dill pickle and a beer-braised bratwurst with grilled onions. This scenario might seem normal to the casual observer – a sausage guy selling grilled sausages at the market – but these were fresh sausages. Not so strange, you might still insist, since that's what almost all of the local sausage folks make – except that Salt & Time is known for cured sausages and meats, traditional European-style sausages that seldom see a grill.
What makes the whole thing even weirder is knowing that not so long ago, Runkle was a devout vegan living in the Bay Area. Then he decided that eating responsibly by consuming fresh, seasonal, and local fare made more sense environmentally than eating fake chicken produced from soybeans grown elsewhere. If he were to be an omnivore, he had to be one with a conscience, so he embraced the principles of Michael Pollan and joined Marin Sun Farms' community-supported agriculture program. Marin Sun Farms is run by David Evans and the Grossi family, responsibly producing beef, veal, pork, and poultry, as well as sheep and goat products, in Point Reyes, Calif. Runkle was so inspired by their methods that he became an apprentice butcher for the company, learning the art of processing and butchering. Artisanal salumi and charcuterie (shar-KOO-ter-ee; the French term for cooked and preserved meat products) were a natural extension of the Old World slow food methods of raising the animals, and Marin Sun had contacts with all of the best local restaurants and delis, which enabled Runkle to work in such holy temples of cured meat as the Fatted Calf in Napa and Avedano's Holly Park Market in San Francisco. He was able to perfect his curing craft in one of the absolute best places in the States to do so.
After relocating to Central Texas with his wife, Natalie, who's a talented designer, Runkle found commercial property in Niederwald, set up a butchering operation and a meat curing room, and started expanding his methods into commercial quantities. "The Austin area is ideal for what we do," says Runkle. "We have amazing responsibly raised animals to start with, from Richardson Farms, Dolce Sweet Farms, Revival Meats, and the rest. The farmers' market scene is lively, active, and growing. There are a bunch of area organic farms producing quality produce that we use for our meat products and our pickles. And we have a customer base that's well-traveled and already knows and loves the kinds of products we cure."
"My specialty is traditional European-style salumi," he says. "I shy away from the word 'charcuterie' because we tend more towards Italian-style salumi and less towards terrines and pâtés, although we do rillettes and other products. I try to maximize the yield of every pig I get, and not all products are suited to dry-curing. However I'm preserving it, I start with local premium ingredients, respect them as much as possible, and make the best products from them that I can."
Curing like Runkle does is considered the highest form of meat preservation – and the most difficult. "It's all based on salt and time, which is where the name of the company comes from," he says. "I use sea salt, seasonings and spices, and European starter cultures, and then it requires the right temperature, humidity, and time. Some of my products can cure for as long as a year and a half; that's a long time to have money tied up in a product. I can lose as much as 30 to 40 percent of original weight when a product cures, but it's worth it in flavor when it's ready for the customer."
I met Runkle at HOPE Market one Sunday to pick up some products to sample and was introduced to Bryan Butler, who was manning the grill. Butler was a butcher for many years at Wheatsville Food Co-op and has a lot of experience with fresh sausages, so he was a natural fit for Runkle's business. "We will be doing more fresh sausages in the future, so that will help a little on the bottom line while we expand our product line," says Runkle. Salt & Time retails its products at the HOPE Market and through Antonelli's Cheese Shop and sells wholesale to such places as Hotel Saint Cecilia, W Hotel, Black Star Co-op Pub & Brewery, and Aviary Lounge. "We have plans to open our own retail shop and deli in town in the future," he says. "We're looking for the right spot."
Runkle offered me some of Salt & Time's crisp, garlicky pickled okra while I waited for my sausage sandwich. The first thing you notice with the pickled products is that they are crisp and flavorful, with less vinegar than you'd expect, and the taste of the fresh vegetables really comes through. Then I got the sandwich, and it was the best hot dog that I've ever had. The frank, made from grass-fed beef and heritage pork, was moist, spicy, and rich, with a nice snap from the casing. The addition of porky pancetta and a dill spear pushed it over the top. The Spanish chorizo and Italian salami are both excellent: rich, dark, and well-seasoned, with that wonderful air-cured tang and fat that melts seductively. The pancetta is perfectly flavored, and the thin slices of lonzino transport me to the fantastic lomo I've tasted in Spain. A tub of pork rillettes is sinfully rich and decadent when slathered on peasant bread. Salt & Time has hit a high mark, producing dry-cured sausages that any small, traditional village in Italy would be proud of. Runkle is taking the best of our local meats and making them better, using only salt, spices, skill, and patience.
Larry Kocurek comes from a long line of Tex-Czech sausagemakers, with two generations of Bohemian relatives before him hunting deer and making sausages around Gonzales, Texas. He met his wife, Lee Ann, in culinary school. "I used to tell him he was going to turn into a sausage. That's all he ever wanted to eat," she says. Over the ensuing years, she earned pastry and sommelier degrees, he graduated with cooking school honors, and they moved around for years learning and polishing their crafts in fine-dining restaurants, eventually ending up in Austin.
Lee Ann made gorgeous pastries as an assistant to David Bull at the Driskill, and then went to the Austin Wine Merchant to consult and manage. Larry was executive chef at Roy's for years before becoming Whole Foods' senior culinary instructor. For the past seven years, he's been researching and perfecting his sausage and charcuterie recipes, refining his butchering skills, and connecting with local sources. The Kocureks personally know who produces their ingredients. All the meats are local, free-range, all-natural, and heritage breeds when possible, and all of the fresh produce is seasonal, organic, and local. "I started getting into real food when I was at Roy's, and they had a wine cellar that was perfect for curing meats," says Kocurek. "The wine guys hated it, but the temperature and humidity were ideal."
Larry and Lee Ann have been making charcuterie professionally for a year and a half, and their business continues to expand. "We decided that we wanted to have fun making a living, doing what we liked to do," says Lee Ann. They currently sell their products at the six major Austin farmers markets, and they hope to soon add the extremely popular Pearl Farmers Market in San Antonio to that list. They also present two cooking classes a month and put on a quarterly supper club. The hands-on cooking classes range from venison, pig, and duck butchering (which also cover some elements of charcuterie) to classic French sauce classes. Each class ends with a buffet centered on what's been taught that day, and they all sell out in advance. The supper club is held at Swoop House, the inviting 1924 Craftsman-era location of 2 Dine 4 Fine Catering's commissary kitchen in East Austin. "They're five- to eight-course themed dinners that can be from any region of the world," says Lee Ann. "Everything is all organic and local. Starched linens, formal wine service, interesting folks sitting at communal tables, and always some element of our charcuterie involved ... it's a lot of work, but a lot of fun as well."
In March, the Kocureks will be expanding their commercial kitchen space, gaining a large walk-in cooler. "Once we have that cooler, we can start doing cured products and concentrate a lot more on wholesale to local restaurants," says Larry. "Now we make primarily fresh products, but we constantly do small test batches of cured product so that we're ready when the time comes." Another future plan is to host three- and four-day camping and hunting excursions to game ranches around the state. "This will be the real deal, Old World style," says Lee Ann. "Sleeping in tents, incredible food around the campfire, tracking and hunting, dressing and butchering the kill. You'll be out in nature, not staying in some hotel. We're real excited about getting these trips going."
I was lucky enough to attend a weekly tasting, held for the staff so they can personally describe the offerings to the market customers each week. Larry laid out a spread of many products, and we began to taste and critique. The fresh venison sausage is superlative: coarse-textured, vibrantly spiced, moist, and not the least bit gamey. The game boudin of venison and pork with Louisiana rice has a spicy cayenne kick. The cured venison sausage is dark, deeply rich, and tangy, and absolutely wonderful when accented by the grainy mustard that's made with beer yeast.
Their Czech-style bacon is smoky and exuberantly piggy. The lean smoked-duck bacon made from the breast magically blends the worlds of duck and pork belly. The "Christmas" or "Charles Dickens" chicken sausage made with cream and brandy is moist and rich, and it's even better when combined with their amazing apple-caramelized-onion marmalade. The chicken sausage turned out to be the best I've ever had: medium-textured, spiced with balance, and surprisingly moist, accented by a dab of the Love Creek apple butter. Pork rillettes schmeared on crusty bread literally melt in your mouth. A spoonful of the velvety chicken-and-duck-liver pâté de maison on a cracker makes me instantly forget how much I hate liver. There are two flaky English-style tarts: one with silky slices of braised tongue and chard, the other made with duck, venison, and greens. We demolished the tasting board, with the group reduced to primal grunts and groans of pleasure.
"The selection changes with the seasons and our whims," says Larry. "One week it might be Southeast Asia and France, the next week, Poland and Spain. We just try to have fun and make our customers very happy." Like Larry, I have a deep culinary fondness for sausages, and after sampling a wide variety, I can honestly say the Kocureks are highly skilled in the art of making delicious charcuterie and producing bold and balanced flavors. Go to the farmers' market; you really need to try this stuff.
Copyright © 2017 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.