"You wouldn't be interested in hog jowls, would you?"
It's the sort of question that stops you in your tracks. There I was, at the Noe Valley Farmers Market, chatting up the good fellas at the Prather Ranch stand, when one of them popped that question. When my eyebrow went up, he went on to say that a local restaurant had ordered them, but decided they didn't need them upon delivery. The jowls were now taking up valuable space in their freezer cart, and he had no intention of bringing them back at the end of the day. He offered them to me for two dollars a pound. And just like that, they were mine.
As I sauntered into the house, DPaul asked how the market was. "I got hog jowls!" I squealed, to which he replied with a nonplussed, "oh?" The unspoken reply, I suspect, was "but did you pick up anything we can make for dinner?"
Sure, we could have rendered them then and there, made some chicharrones, but that would be a terrible waste, for hog jowls are the source of one of the most precious and coveted cured pork products: Guanciale. Like pancetta, guanciale (pron. gwan-CHA-leh) is an unsmoked bacon, but it's got a richer flavor and tends to have a higher fat-to-meat ratio. It's what's most traditionally used in the classic Italian dishes pasta alla carbonara and bucatini all'amatriciana. But, it's relatively rare here in the states, so when you order these dishes, you're more likely getting it with pancetta -- or, criminally, American bacon.
And so I knew I wanted to make guanciale with my lovely pig face fat, but I wasn't really prepared to undertake that project in the moment. The jowls went into the freezer, and stayed there for a few weeks while I got things in order.
Among the resources I found on how to cure guanciale was one from a veritable master of salumi, Mario Batali. The technique was simple enough: Create a rub of salt and sugar, with pepper and thyme. Coat the jowls, let rest in the fridge for a week, then tie and hang them in a cool, dry place for a few weeks. Luckily, we have a basement that manages to stay under the recommended 60ºF during these cool winter months.
Having never cured meat before, I was both fascinated and trepidacious. Would I botulize both us and our friends with my lovingly cured guanciale? I then came across an excellently written account of one other man's guanciale-making expedition, and took comfort in knowing that he survived to tell his story.