December 5, 2014: Aaron Gilliam of Thistle Meats

Aaron GilliamWe had a wonderful presentation from Aaron Gilliam, sheep farmer and salumiere for Thistle Meats in Petaluma!

Aaron grew up in Marin County then went to UC Santa Barbara for Environmental Studies and Ecology. He studied agriculture and got interested in composting, natural building, growing flowers, baking sourdough bread and farming, all homesteading skills.

An opportunity led to a 10-month course on butchery in Italy, including natural curing of meats. He learned that preserving meat is fermenting meat.  Fermenting meat is just like fermenting veggies. Instead of the microbes consuming sucrose or fructose in vegetables or fruit, they consume the blood sugar in the meat, creating lactic acid.

He says that the difference between salami and rotted ground meat is that with the right amount of salt you can select for the right bacteria to ferment the meat into salami. The microbes have been given the right environment; they’ve eaten the blood sugar and created acid that makes the meat dehydrate and preserve. The acid makes it inhospitable to bad bacteria.  The enzymes from the bacteria help break down the meat and make it flavorful.

Italiam salumi is equivalent to the French charcuterie, which means value-added or cured meats. Salami is a type of salumi. The word salami means “ground up”, cased, and fermented.

The white on the outside of the salami is mold, like Camembert or Brie cheese. It’s the fruiting body of the fungus with roots that go into the salami that are digesting the acids that the bacteria created. (Mushrooms, for example, are the fruiting body of a fungus) The fermenting process sweetens the meat, as the molds consume the acids and fats and creates aromatics.

Our #1 friend is fungus ~ in the soil, in our food, the enzymes. No inoculation is needed; the right fungi spores are everywhere. His newest mentor, Francois Veccio from Geneva, insists on using cultures but Aaron prefers not to use a starter culture. He finds that if cultures are used then everything starts to taste the same.

Aaron says that if an animal is stressed before slaughter, it’s metabolism increases and the blood sugar is consumed. As a butcher he can tell that the meat won’t ferment without the blood sugar so sweetener needs to be added.

Some people worry about nitrates in food. But saltpeter (potassium nitrate) has been used in salami making for a long time. Small amounts of sodium nitrate are used in cured meats today. It’s a strong salt that selectively kills botulism and listeria. Lactic acid in the fermentation process breaks an oxygen off the nitrate to make it nitrite, then when another oxygen is pulled away, it becomes a gas, nitrogen monoxide, that is harmless because it evaporates. So in well-cured salami, the nitrates are broken down.

At their shop, Thistle Meats, they ferment and cook with smoke. They rely on locally sourced farms for their meat, and three of them pasture their pork.

Aaron says that a weak point for their shop is duck, because they are difficult to raise. As for chicken, they are not supposed to be born in November and go through the winter. But to be only a seasonal provider of chicken meat will lose customers that are hard to regain. Traditionally, people didn’t eat chicken meat. They ate eggs and occasional stewed chicken in the form of stock.

The farm Aaron works raising sheep is 5 acres (between Petaluma and Point Reyes Station), owned by the Cooper family.

We had a tasty potluck with 4 amazing soups (a vegetable potage, a pea soup, goat stew and chicken and rice soup); a delicious aged cheese; homemade tart cherry soda and milk kefir; roasted beets, Brussels sprouts and celery root in lard; yummy salads; homemade kraut; chocolate freezer fudge. Aaron brought a gorgeous platter of salumi: rillette with black truffle, pork loin, salami and mousse de foie. The samples were mouth-wateringly delicious!

By Lauren Ayers & Karen Hamilton-Roth