Saltbox Farm goes whole hog
The scents of fennel and rosemary wafted through the air, and two crispy-skinned golden-brown pork roasts cooled on the stove as signs of what was to come.
On a butcher block-topped island in the center of the kitchen, Aran Goldstein and Ralph Fiegel, chefs and culinary instructors at Saltbox Farm in Concord, had laid out a whole pig before a small group of burgeoning cooks. The pig was halved lengthwise, and they set it skin side down before it would be split up into the primal cuts: the shoulder, loin, belly, and ham.
Soon, the chefs offered knives to the guests, who were about to get some hands-on butchering experience.
That was just the beginning of the creation of porchetta, an Italian pork roast, on a recent evening at Saltbox Farm. The farm, named after the saltbox-style house built on the property in the 1940s, holds cooking classes regularly, when they can be worked around the chefs’ catering schedule.
Each class focuses on a specific dish or theme, such as porchetta in this instance, but the instructors have a broader mission: to inspire people to cook at home and teach them skills they can use.
They are trying “to encourage people to grab an apron and get their hands dirty; it’s the best way to learn,” said Ben Elliott, who owns and runs the farm, which belonged to his grandparents, as well as the cooking school and catering business.
Saltbox Farm is not alone in this endeavor. Vera Simon-Nobes, Farm-Based Education Network coordinator and Shelburne Farms’ Vermont Farms Agritourism project coordinator, said, “At the FBEN, I’ve seen growing interest in offering cooking classes on farms, as they help consumers build a strong relationship with the source of their food, and they offer a chance for people to gather around a common theme. It’s an exciting wave in food and farm education!”
During a two-hour class at Appleton Farms in Ipswich, for example, guests will harvest a particular crop (whatever is in season), and then convene in the kitchen to prepare what they’ve picked. Around the holidays, the farm offers a class on food gifts, including baked goods and savory spreads.
At Drumlin Farm in Lincoln, you can taste homemade cheeses, including paneer and goat cheese, then learn how to make your own. There’s even a pizza class geared toward children, who go into the field to harvest their pizza toppings while the dough they made rises.
At the porchetta class at Saltbox Farm, Elliott, Goldstein, and Fiegel showed guests how to make the dish from scratch, starting with a whole pig obtained from Savenor’s, a Cambridge- and Boston-based butcher shop.
The lesson, however, had begun outside. When guests arrived, the chefs led them around the farm, which grows produce and raises sheep, chickens, and even bees. As the guests picked ingredients that would be used in the porchetta and an accompanying salsa verde, they got to sample lamb meatballs and learn about borage, an herb that Goldstein explained is used in Mediterranean cooking and has edible blue flowers.
Back inside, the guests gathered around the large work island in the well-equipped kitchen of the farm’s recently restored Little House.
When some intrepid volunteers stepped up to the pig, Goldstein and Fiegel gave tips on such things as how to hold the knife and where to cut.
“Stay as close to the bone as possible,” Goldstein instructed, comparing it to cutting a chicken breast from the carcass and not leaving behind any meat.
To put the students at ease, Fiegel said “it’s like cutting an onion,” while Goldstein reassured them that it’s OK to make mistakes, and that a lot of the procedure is based on feel.
After freeing a bone from the ham, one excited student proudly exclaimed, “I separated my first pig bone!” while brandishing the evidence.
Another guest, who was cashing in on his Father’s Day gift card, learned how to remove some of the skin from the meat, so that it wouldn’t be trapped inside once the belly and loin pieces were rolled up for roasting.
With the butchering finished and the pieces for the porchetta selected, work began on the filling, a mixture of chopped herbs, garlic, lemon zest, and Calabrian chili flakes.
Showers of salt hit the meat and the students smeared the herb mixture all over it before rolling and securing the meat, tying it with twine. Once the meat bundles were intact, they were placed in a pan, and the porchetta was whisked away to be packed up for guests to take home at the end of the class, along with the recipe and directions for cooking it.
In the meantime, the chefs set to work cleaning all of the surfaces the raw meat had touched and then some, scrubbing down everything as would happen in a restaurant kitchen — a familiar venue for the three chefs. Elliott and Fiegel have both worked at No. 9 Park and Goldstein at Clink in Boston, stints that barely scratch the surface of their experience.
Goldstein then set down a cutting board and began assembling the salsa verde, dispensing tidbits of cooking wisdom along the way.
“The Italian way is to be more aggressive with herbs,” he said, as he roughly chopped parsley. Then he added that mint should be handled gently so that it doesn’t bruise, and he switched to a gentler cutting motion. Soon the whole kitchen smelled of the fresh-cut, fresh-picked mint.
Mouths were watering by the time Elliott brought over some warm porchetta (which had been prepared earlier, since there isn’t enough time to complete the dish during a 2½-hour class) and began slicing it.
Along with the porchetta and salsa verde, the chefs set out fresh baked rolls; chopped farm-fresh heirloom tomatoes in a variety of colors; homemade pickles; a red cabbage, napa cabbage, and carrot slaw; and some pickled jalapeños (the students were warned about their spiciness).
As everyone dug in, Elliott asked who was going to try this at home. Several said they thought they would — maybe not butchering a whole pig, but at least making salsa verde and porchetta.
The discussion ventured into other classes the farm offers, while everyone spooned salsa verde on their plates.
“We recently did a dumpling class that was a lot of fun,” said Goldstein. The dumpling lesson, like the farm’s pasta-making class, takes something that seems complex and makes it accessible to the home cook.
During the conversation, it became clear the chefs appreciate the classes because they get to do whatever they want. With their catering business, they need to consider what the client wants, but with the classes, they can really decide. They call it their “play kitchen.”
They’re raising sheep on the farm now, so a lamb-butchering class is in the works for the not-too-distant future. Fiegel, meanwhile, has gotten into brewing, so there’s a home-brewing class scheduled for next month.
Beyond that, Saltbox offers a Community Supported Agriculture program, where people sign up to receive produce directly from farms, and there are classes where participants learn how to use what’s in their CSA boxes, and develop a passion for seasonal cooking.
In the Seed to Kitchen class, guests start by learning how to plant vegetables, then harvest some and head into the kitchen to cook with them.
There are classes on international cuisines, too, ranging from Belgian to Chinese to Turkish. The chefs also conduct private cooking classes, or will host a class for a larger group at someone’s home, and, with the addition of a spit that Elliott said farm hopes to get, hearth cooking could be in the future.
A lot of people think cooking is complicated, “but it’s really beautifully simple,” said Goldstein. And whatever the course, the farm’s cooking school is promoting the same message: You can do this at home.