By Terry Thompson-Anderson
Written for Leslie Horne and published by Edible Austin.
The remembered taste of a much-enjoyed flavor is a magical sensory experience. It’s sort of like the mind’s tongue, a place where we store those special tastes from long ago. From this place, we can recall the memory of a taste to our palates so vividly that it can cause us to salivate. For most people, these taste memories come from childhood—something our mothers or grandmothers cooked for us, like chicken and dumplings, apple pie, cherry cobbler. For me, though, the most poignant flavor memory was my first taste of real Spanish Chorizo.
I was first introduced to Spanish Chorizo when a friend with relatives in the far northern region of Asturias in Spain—a region known for the quality of its smoked meats—returned from a trip with a can of handmade chorizo as a gift. At the time, I had no idea that this tiny tin of brick-red sausages packed in orange-streaked pork lard was a family treasure, or that I had been honored with the gifting of it. When my friend explained that the chorizo had been made from a secret family recipe that had been handed down for generations, I knew that I must try them, or risk offending my friend. That first bite is burned into my memory; the flavors unlike anything I’d ever tasted—tart on the palate with nuances of wood-grilled meat, a sensuous bite of smoked paprika, then finally the subtle, back-of-the-throat touch of spiciness.
When I first heard people talking of the new fifth-flavor perception they were calling umami, the savory element, I knew exactly what they were talking about. That small tin of chorizo was the epitome of umami. I was hooked, but at the time, it was virtually impossible to find imported Spanish meats or charcuterie, and smoked paprika was largely unheard of.
I began to research the history and process of making Spanish chorizo—an air-cured, dry sausage, unlike the fresh chorizo produced in Mexico. I discovered that in Asturias, the chorizo is smoked over chestnut wood so I scoured the U.S. looking for a source of chestnut, but to no avail. Further research showed that hickory, another nut-producing tree, would produce a similar sweet-smoke flavor.
I eventually found a source for the smoked paprika in Spain and ordered a large supply of it. Then with the help of my husband, we began producing 80-pound batches of chorizo in our home kitchen. We wanted to be as true to the original recipe as possible, so we bought fresh hams, made the sausages and took them—along with the hickory wood—to our favorite barbecue and smokehouse joints and paid to have them smoked. But the results were never quite perfect because the smokehouses use hot smoke and chorizo requires cold smoking to produce the desired taste and texture. Even when the sausages were put in the far back corners of the smokehouse, the atmosphere was still too hot.
It was an intense trial-and-error process at first, and a laborious chore, as we had no commercial-grade equipment—just a standard KitchenAid mixer with a meat grinder and sausage stuffer. Adequate space to air cure the sausages was an issue, as well. Our friends loved the chorizo, though, and were always willing to come over for a sausage-making party, but we began to worry about the safety of making the chorizo in a home kitchen. That’s when I decided to do some serious online research—seeking a definition for each term or procedure I didn’t understand and learning about the laws governing charcuterie production, the inspection process and things like water activity and pH. I went to local and state health departments to learn their requirements, and it was there that I discovered that the biggest roadblock would be the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)—we would need their approval if we ever hoped to produce the chorizo for shipment out of state. I also learned that the USDA is very hesitant to approve cold-smoked charcuterie products.
But I was very determined and wasn’t about to give up. I went to the food science department at Texas A&M and consulted with professors who helped me develop a pasteurization process that the USDA would approve. Then I began a long and arduous search to find a sausage maker who would produce the chorizo according to the necessary specifications. The search eventually led us to a small sausage facility in Austin, where we formed a partnership. We purchased the necessary equipment to cold smoke and air cure the sausage, and the company remodeled their operation to accommodate the production process. Aurelia’s Artisan Spanish Chorizo—named in honor of an elderly woman we met in northern Spain who taught us to really savor food and appreciate its ingredients—became a reality.
It was our desire to produce a pure, all-natural product with no fillers, binders, nitrates, nitrites or curing ingredients, so we had to come up with alternative natural products that were also USDA approved. Again, this was a long trial-and-error process, especially to meet the strict USDA requirements. We were rewarded by our efforts with a minimally processed all natural Spanish Chorizo, with no nitrates, nitrites, gluten or fillers, while still retaining the original smoky, spicy flavor.