We are in the thick heat of summer, aka outdoor grilling season. I have been lighting up the wood pit in our back garden, putting homemade sausages and other meaty treats literally to the fire.
In this missive, we visit the foundation of meaty treats: butchery. Jeff and I spent an afternoon with Taylor Boetticher, owner of the Fatted Calf in Napa, to learn the ropes on breaking down a whole hog.
Tempering the knife and dagger with a little Zen, I chat with a master of tea and the subject of two award-winning documentaries about the joys of sharing a cup, David Lee Hoffman.
Getting back to the meat of the matter or the grind (pick your metaphor), I give you my recipe for lamb crépinette flavored with North African spice, inspired by the merguez sausage, something the French have always been dingue about. Recipe at the bottom if you want to jump.
Happy grilling, tea sipping, and summer chilling.
Vintner, Cook, Butcher, Baker, Cabernet Maker
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Another check off my bucket list. Jeff and I got a bit of instruction to break down a whole hog properly. Taylor Boetticher is the owner of the Fatted Calf, a charcuterie in Napa, which he describes as his “secret world of meaty wonders.” The Fatted Calf is a candy store for all things meaty. This shop has been my inspiration for creating my own fresh sausages, smoked sausages, pâtés, and terrines.
We were presented with one 400-pound hog, split into two halves. A group of eight would-be butchers fitted with knives, saws, cleavers, and mallets was assembled. Starting with shanks and trotters, we began to disassemble the animal. It was interesting to get the lay of the land on how all the pieces relate to each other: the shoulder composed of the Boston butt and the picnic roast, the ribs, which will be spare ribs and which will be baby back ribs, the tenderloin, the leg, and the leaf lard around the kidneys.
Although Jeff engaged in the afternoon, he decided he still likes a disconnect from his dinner plate. On the other hand, I was fascinated. I think that if we are meat eaters, it makes sense to understand the animal fully and minimize the waste. The French have a saying, “dans le couchon, tout est bon; de la queue, jusqu’au menton,” meaning “with the pig, all is good; from the tail to the chin.” I got to experience this first hand as we broke the animal down into all the usable parts, including the head. In the end, the “waste” bucket was the size of a coffee cup. Most everything was put to use. Satisfying.
I’m not much of a coffee person, I prefer tea. About twelve years ago, I came across a documentary titled “All In This Tea.” The main subject was a fascinating man, David Lee Hoffman. Directed by Les Blank and Gina Leibrecht, the film followed David’s travels across China over ten years to remote mountain areas to buy quality, organic, small farm teas to bring back and share in the States. I’m pretty sure it was the next day after watching the documentary that I tracked him down on the Internet and started buying my morning cup from him directly.
Quite the star, he was also the subject of the documentary, “Leaf and Water,” directed by Tom Vallance, and he is now being filmed for short segments by A.J. Marson for YouTube.
We have developed a nice relationship. David has been to our home to taste wine, and we have had the pleasure of visiting him at his tea house in Lagunitas, California. He has been supplying my tea habit for over a decade. He and his story are worth knowing.
This is a recorded interview, transcribed and slightly edited for clarity.
Joey Wolosz: My main question is what brought you to tea?
David Lee Hoffman: I was living out of the country, I should say traveling out of the country for 10 years. Most of the world are tea drinkers. It was when I started living in India and Tibet that I really got the taste for tea, specifically the aged pu-erh teas. That’s what the Tibetans were drinking. I came back to this country and I couldn’t find any good tea. So, I actually started going to China just to support my own habit and buying teas direct. Every time I made a trip friends would say, “Oh, bring some back for me.” Pretty soon I had a business.
JW: How did the documentary come about?
DLH: Well, there were a couple. I assume you mean Les Blank?
JW: Yeah, Les Blank’s, “All in This Tea.”
DLH: Yeah. We met at the Himalayan fair and he thought I was an interesting character, whatever, and asked if he could follow me around and film me. I was very reluctant at first, I’m a very private person and I was more used to being on the other side of the camera. I was doing my own photography. I enjoyed his company, he was a lot of fun to travel with and share experiences with. So, it just evolved. I think it took him about 10 years to actually complete the film. Much with the help of Gina Leibrecht [the co-director] who did the editing and provided the inspiration for him to finish it.
JW: I saw it took a while to complete. You mentioned other documentaries. What other ones are out there?
DLH: Well, Tom Vallance did his little tea documentary, “Leaf and Water.” A.J. Marson is filming me now. He’s got a couple of short segments up on our website that one could look at and that’s it.
JW: So do you have any other creative outlets other than tea?
DLH: Unfortunately, I’ve been blessed with too many passions. I’ve been cursed with too many passions in life. There’s not enough time to do all the things that I love doing. My other main involvement is with stone pots. I developed a whole line of stone pots for cooking. Especially for solar cooking. I do all my cooking by the sun when the sun’s out. It’s so easy. I love it so much. Of course, growing food, gardening, that’s another one of my passions, and working with my hands. I’ve been a builder all my life. I love getting dirty, working and creating things, inventing things.
JW: My life is all about wine and food. So, the next question is obviously what do you enjoy cooking in these stone pots?
DLH: Well, I cook everything that one could cook with regular cookware, I just find that cooking with stone adds a much deeper dimension to food preparation. I do a lot of low-temperature cooking. Most food starts to cook around 170 degrees so I do a lot of cooking below 200. I have lids for the pots that are machined on a lathe so that they’re a very tight fit. The object is to keep all the moisture in the pot. Don’t let anything boil out, keep the fragrance in there, keep the moisture in there. I don’t add any liquid when I’m braising meat for example. The meat, the mushrooms, and anything else I throw in have so much latent moisture in there, that at the end of cooking, there’s, you know, a quarter inch of delicious soup in the bottom of the pot. It’s a very different way of cooking. I do have to find the time to write about my experiences because I’ve been using nothing but stone for cooking for about the last 15 years.
JW: I saw those pots when I was tasting tea with you and Lagunitas. Do you ever bury those in coals?
DLH: Well, if I’m using the sun, I focus the sun on the pot. I have to be careful though because I’ve recorded up to 600 degrees temperature on the stone. I tend to use very heavy stone which dissipates the heat and evens it out. But there are ways to control the temperature as well. If I’m making bread, I like to have the temperature somewhere between 375 and 425. Much beyond that, you run the risk of burning the bread or whatever food you’re preparing.
JW: Friends and family excluded, who are two people you’d like to share a long and lingering meal with?
DLH: Well, I had a few people on my bucket list that I wanted to have tea with. Sharing food is another dimension of that I suppose. Gary Larson, The Far Side. I’ve never met the person but I love the guy. His last book was on earthworms, which has been another passion of mine. I’ve been raising earthworms for 51 years now. They’re the backbone of all my operating systems here: the gray water systems, the black water systems, they all use earthworms for filtering the water. So, Gary Larson would be one of the people I would enjoy having a meal with, to cook for. Not sure the second person.
[David added Michael Pollan as his second guest in a follow-up email.]
JW: What tea would you serve?
DLH: Well depending on what the person’s taste was, if they like black tea I would serve the Jin Jun Mei and this year’s Jin Jun Mei is the best I’ve gotten in the years. If you like green tea it would be the Pre Qing Ming Green Mist, the private reserve. For a pu-erh, it’s a little more complicated in that I’ve got over 300 different pu-erhs in inventory. That’s the bulk of my collection. I still have about 50,000 pounds of pu-erhs and the Heicha, the dark tea, or other type of post-fermented age tea. But I would find one that would suit the person drinking.
JW: Tell me about pu-erh. It seems to be your favorite tea and many people probably do not know what it is.
DLH: Well, I think it has been more mainstream of late certainly in the last decade. I started bringing in pu-erhs when I started my business 32 years ago. At that point, all teas had to be inspected by the tea inspectors. There were two: Robert Dick was a senior inspector and Joseph Spillman was the junior, and Robert Dick did not like pu-erhs. When I sent him samples, he said, “No, you can’t let in the country. These teas are old. They smell musty. We need only fresh tea in this country.” I pleaded with him just taste it. Try it. He wouldn’t go there. But I noticed that all the teas that you found in Chinatown, you know, most of them were pu-erhs. The way they brought them in is they just didn’t call it a pu-erh. They called it a black tea or something. It was interesting for all the thousands of tons of tea that came in the country, there were only two tea inspectors. It was mostly based on the honor system. They finally did away with with the tea inspectors and now everything has to go through the FDA. You know, if the paperwork is in order, they don’t care, they just bring it in. So pu-erhs are an interesting tea. People tend to love them or hate them. There doesn’t seem to be much gray area. But I gravitated to them right away. When I was living with the Tibetan people back in the 60s, this is what they drank. They churned it up with very ripe butter and a bit of salt. II found it a very satisfying drink. In fact, I just had my morning tea and I put a pinch of salt in there and it makes it kind of “pop.”
JW: Interesting. I’m going to try that. Tell me, what is your spirit animal?
DLH: Well, the first thing that comes to mind is a frog. I introduce frogs on my property. There are at least five native species of frogs that live here. In the springtime when they’re mating, I can carry on conversations with them, we talk back and forth. It’s so much fun. I guess that’s my spirit animal. I’ve never been asked that question. So, I have to think about it a little more.
JW: What benefit do they bring to your garden?
DLH: Well, when I see snakes and frogs and lizards in the garden, I get very happy because everything is working as it should. This is how nature takes care of insect problems and keeping things in balance. So they’re part of the ecosystem. Very important part of it. And yeah, that’s just the shorter answer.
JW: And what is your motto?
DLH: Live each day like it’s your last, just make it count, make it full, make it rich, make it rewarding in some way. Be grateful. I mean, who could predict the future these days? You can’t. Things are changing at warp speed. The only thing we have direct control on is the present this moment, this right now. I don’t want to waste or squander it and watch television or something. I’ve never owned a TV in my life. Not that I’m putting down television. For some people, it’s their best companion. For me, I’d rather be doing something.
Crépinettes are traditional French flat sausage patties wrapped in caul fat. Caul fat is the beautiful spider-like web of fat that surrounds the organs of the animal. It looks like your grandmother’s old lace. Using caul fat to wrap these little sausage packages instead of casing makes this recipe much simpler to execute, and in my opinion, much more interesting.
French crépinettes are typically seasoned with five spice, sage, marjoram, or truffles. The street food scene in France has always been crazy about Moroccan merguez sausages and I thought this would be a fun summer twist. Ancho chili is my Californian contribution to the mix, borrowed from Alice Waters. Adding the pork fat (always a great idea) ensures a moist and tasty sausage and just makes it porkier.
This is my take on a merguez-inspired lamb crépinette. Grill over a wood fire, coals, or in a grill pan. However you heat, it won’t disappoint.
Thinking about summer in the South of France, this is meant for a summer pairing of rosé; however, you can’t go wrong with a red wine.