Out of a job, the talented cook spent much of the next year in Italy learning to raise, butcher and cure hogs, and then returned to the U.S. to ply that trade here. He’s since partnered with investor and ham fan Nic Heckett (Clifton, Va.), and hog producer and farmer Chuck Talbott (Mason County, W.Va.) to form Woodlands Pork.
On Talbott’s farm, heritage breed hogs roam nearly free eating what lies on the land … until Denham comes to “harvest” them. He then cures the meat at Broadbent Hams in Cadiz, Ky., and readies them for sale.
He hopes by next year to be operating his own processing facility, The Curehouse, on Old Fern Valley Road in Louisville. There he will cure the entire hog in myriad ways that most folks don’t want to know about, but are dying to eat.
Eager to see some more artisan ham available in the city, Insider Louisville caught up with Denham, nagged him to get his place open, for crying out loud, and asked him how things were coming.
Editor’s note: For an interesting MSNBC video on Woodlands Pork, click here.
Insider Louisville: So how long until The Curehouse opens?
Jay Denham: We’re working on a business plan and our final numbers for build out and construction. So it’ll be 2013 at the earliest. We’re trying to get some help from the state and some construction loans.
IL: But your hams are available here, right?
JD: Only at Blue Dog Bakery, but if anyone wants to get one, they can thecurehouse(Replace this parenthesis with the @ sign)gmail.com and I’ll call them.
IL: Where are your hams being made now?
JD: At Broadbent Hams in Cadiz, Ky.
IL: So you drive between Cadiz, your home in Louisville and the farm in West Virginia? That’s some serious gas burning.
JD: I put 60,000 miles on my (Dodge Ram 2500 truck) last year. … When diesel was $5, I was making my own from fryer grease.
IL: What’s so different about your hams?
JD: The hogs have to be right, and we use all heritage breeds (a hybrid of breeds such as Ossabaw, Duroc and others). We have some captive wild boars in with the sows to help with the pigs’ foraging instinct, because they roam the farm. … They go into the woods to get hickory nuts, acorns, persimmons, grubs and roots … and they eat beans, squash, rape, barley … we let them harvest it.
IL: And the curing? What’s different there?
JD: Our hams aren’t just like prosciutto or Spanish hams, like people assume. They’re done with a European style of curing, but with a southern twist.
I don’t want to use so much salt. A lot of country hams are salted more so they can be cured in less time. But I want less salt, which means it takes more time to cure. And we will cure the entire animal.
We’ll also be releasing hams on vintages because of what the pigs eat in different years. There are good years based on what drops from the trees (his hogs are finished on nuts) and lean years when there’s not much. So we’ll put vintages on them.
IL: When The Curehouse opens, what else will you do besides hams?
JD: We’ll do a multitude of additional products: fresh and cooked sausages, cooked and fresh hams, high-end bolognas … the whole hog. All our meat will be source-verified, all ground whole muscles, all better quality than what most are used to.
IL: Why is charcuterie so popular right now?
JD: Because people are just now realizing what the good stuff really tastes like.
IL: You were curing meats in the U.S. before you went to Italy, and then you left to intern there.
JD: I was doing that in Chicago and Nashville (before I came to Louisville) and was doing it at Park Place. … When I went to Italy, I worked to learn how they do it in trade for room and board. I got to stay in a 13th Century castle, which was cool.
IL: Would you like to train others to do the same here?
JD: Definitely. We’re making education a huge part of our business, and we want to have interns. After we get open, we’re considering possibly having a house or apartment for culinary school students who would come here as a part of an externship. On the farm we’re finishing a house that will have room for three interns. We want to teach it full circle: from raising to butchering to processing.
IL: Since you’re so happy in this role, does that mean you are done with the restaurant business?
JD: No, actually, I still might do it someday. I would like to open a ‘meat and three’ (protein and three sides) with really high-quality fold. But that’s not happening anytime soon. It’s just an idea in my head.