Artisan Charcuterie by Chef Xesc Reina
The Spanish chef and artisan Xesc Reina studies the black pig and dresses sobrasada with heterodox colors and aromas. His cured meats –classic and avant-garde– are found in some of the Majorca's best restaurants. Real creativity in charcuterie.
Text: Andonio Sarregui / Club de Gourmets Magazine
Neither a butcher, nor expert in cured meats or chef... Xesc Reina (Sant Hilari Sacalm, Catalonia, 1962) shrugs off simplistic labels to self-define himself as a "creator of flavors". The elasticity of his mental palate keeps him enjoying his trade, since over thirty years ago: organizing and stuffing meat to make use of the raw materials of a pig, and other animals, in their entirety. Imagination and handicraft.
Back in 1983, Reina came up with the mushroom (later much imitated) and the escalivada butifarra susages: these were his presentation in creative charcuterie, a sector that continues to be tainted with conservatism. The School of the Butchers Guild of Barcelona recruited him as a professor in 1990.
Back then, he collaborated with great French masters, like Philippe Roncière, and travelled throughout the Pyrenees in his search for ancient formulas. In 1996 he settled in Sa Pobla, an farming village inland of Mallorca, and between 2003 and 2005 managed a restaurant there: Espai Xesc Reina, where his mutating colored patés with escabeche eggplant were always available, as well as his surprising butifarra of the week.
In 1999, the Meat Trade Foundation published his indispensable treaty: “El llibre de les butifarres cruas” (The Raw Butifarra Book), written in collaboration with the veterinarian Josep Dolcet. Xesc Reina's seventy recipes include butifarras with cinnamon liquor, with seafood cocktail, with anchovies and capers, of kid with orange juice and orange blossom...
Now he's shaking up the stagnant world of sobrasada in Mallorca, an untouchable cured sausage. It was about time for someone to gut the island's black pig and give it some color. Furthermore, he's been teaching courses on creative charcuterie throughout Spain for years.
How do your students react when you tell them that you're going to prepare a chorizo with Xijona or chistorra with cocoa?
First, their faces display absolute skepticism; later, surprise... and finally, acceptance. Creativity is a like a mental can opener, useful so that one's students realize that such a rustic trade also admits the possibility of applying imagination. When I invite them to taste a chistorra with leeks and they verify that it's actually quite good, that's when I get them to understand something that they didn't consider possible.
How did your idea arise of innovating in a trade that is as traditional as this one?
It came to the mind of a guy who was 22 years old –that's me– who was making butifarras… One day I told myself "how boring!" and I started to experiment: first I made one with wild mushrooms, than another one with Roquefort, etc. Once upon a time my shop, La Butifarreria de Sacalm, sold between 15 and 20 different butifarras and about as many varieties of hamburgers. We had butifarras made of salmon to hybrid sea and mountain combinations, like the chicken and cod fuet. We're talking about 30 years ago!
What new products are you currently working on?
Thanks to the commitment of the Mallorcan company Can Company, I have the opportunity to carry out research on the Iberian pig and to do something with it other than sobrasada: from a fuet with blue cheese to a paté with figs, through to experiments with morcilla, my latest trial. I find tremendous stimulation in stepping out of my comfort zone, but grounded on the basis of tradition.
Is the Iberian black pig of superior quality?
Yes, evidently, but I can also do with a properly fed white pig. In a gustatory sense, the black pig is exceptionally tasty. However, once sacrificed, it is less tamable due to its excess fat. It does whatever it wants and no two samples are the same. For me, these represent an ongoing challenge.
First it was the raw Catalan butifarra, but now you're also stirring up Mallorca's flagship embutido. How do you soup up sobrasadas?
Seeing that this sector was so resistant to change, I started with mere traditionalist sequels: with apricots from Porreres, figs, fennels, liquors… They were always a “mix” using local products. Then I expanded my repertoire and combined these with pure cocoa or ginger... Until the latest creation, with blue cheese from Cerdanya (Molí de Ger). Now I'm experimenting with Mallorcan cheese of raw milk, with truffles... Sobrasada combines very well with all of these foods and transforms them into aromas.
What are the secrets of a good sobrasada? Rumors are that you sing and whisper to them...
Time, habitat, follow-up, patience, and knowledge.
What do you mean with "habitat"?
Sobrasada breathes. Due to its amount of fat, it breathes and absorbs everything it inhales. A drying room in poor condition or with unpleasant smells will transfer all of this to the product. Likewise, if we cure the sobrasada in a drying room full of strawberries, we'll obtain a sobrasada with strawberry aroma. Lipids have the facility of absorbing odors, whether pleasant or unpleasant. For me, the secret is in finding a drying room with the aromas I'm after and a good bacterial flora.
Another of your lines of work is the recovery of ancient cured meats. Do you like opposite extremes?
Yes. Just because they're antagonists doesn't mean they can't be good partners: extremes go hand in hand. Today we add fantasy to our dishes, something which formerly was done out of pure necessity. “Nora”, for example, was pork meat with in-season fruits, like dried figs or apricots, which were included as a matter of using one's available resources. But in reality, charcuterie, as a trade, is a modern activity, which develops when people no longer participate in the pig slaughter. Then, with the passage of time, it mutates from a rural domestic requirement into a caprice for urbanites.
Does charcuterie play the role is deserves in avant-garde cuisine?
It is gradually gaining protagonism, but we need to have more self-confidence. Chefs ask a baker to do the “impossible” and the baker rolls up his sleeves and faces the challenge... However, butches tend to oppose one or another suggestion, and this keeps them out of the playing field. In many areas in Spain, they limit themselves to reselling products.