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Thursday, August 9,2012

Mainlining cured meats and cheeses

By Clay Fong

Back in the ’70s, Dad would often return from overseas business trips with his battered black briefcase freighted not with paperwork, but culinary treasures. Returning from Lisbon, Dad once brought back an enigmatic hunk of salted meat. “It’s Portuguese prosciutto,” he explained, “and it’s illegal in the United States.”

I took a taste, and was immediately hooked on its surprisingly complex flavor that bested my favorite salamis. The contraband nature of this delicacy only enhanced my enjoyment, and to this day, there’s a tiny illicit rush when I savor preserved meats.

Pearl Street’s Cured, a small and welcoming shop specializing in wine, cheese and charcuterie, is where I go to indulge these sub rosa cravings. This open brick and wood space also includes the sublime Boxcar Coffee’s retail outlet. Cured has become my go-to destination for topnotch gourmet sandwiches artfully combining the best crusty baguettes in town with artisan charcuterie and small-batch cheeses.

But during a recent lunch visit, sandwiches were not on the agenda as friend Diane and I decided to fully commit to mainlining cured meats and cheeses. We ordered a $37.24 mixed platter paired with a $3 baguette that had a luxuriant texture which precluded the need for butter.

Before committing to a particular selection of items, helpful cheesemonger (Does that make me a wordmonger? Cool) Courtney allowed us to sample many choices. Diane dismissed what she termed the “moldy” cheeses, which eliminated my favorite blues from the running. We eventually reached consensus on the charcuterie and settled on a variety of high-end cuts from America and abroad.

First up was slices of Saucisson Sec, a French-influenced salami from Portland’s Olympic Provisions, shot through with garlic and black pepper. Moister than its Italian-by-way-of-San Francisco cousin, ample marbling gave it a wonderfully velvety quality. From the same source came a Spanish-style dry chorizo that Diane lauded for pos sessing the “perfect amount of heat.”

Spice also was apparent in the hot Coppa from Denver’s Il Mondo Vecchio, although it lounged around in the mouth for a few seconds before gradually creeping up on the tongue. Classic prosciutto di Parma, the authentic Italian standard bearer, arrived sliced paper thin with a decadently silky texture and smoky, salty aroma.

For cheeses, we selected a mix of hard and soft varieties. Red Leicestershire was a compellingly harder edged British take on cheddar — perhaps it’s the Jason Statham of curds? Vermont’s Rupert was a raw milk number that tasted similar to gruyere, and Diane was particularly appreciative of its nutty sharpness. In contrast, European Midnight Moon had a mellower flavor and harder texture akin to a dry Jack.

For the soft selections, we thoroughly enjoyed the creamy vanilla tones of Nancy’s Camembert, a personal domestic favorite. Another winner was the Fleur Verte, or green flower, a smooth-tasting goat cheese dusted with the tempering, woodsy flavors of Herbes du Provence.

We could have spent less on our plate (we were able to feed yet another friend with the leftovers), and some may consider what we spent as pricey for an everyday lunch. But this is no workaday repast, but rather a sensual indulgence, perfect for a celebration or romantic al fresco meal. As Diane put it, enjoying a platter at Cured is “really a culinary adventure.”

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