The controlled chaos that is the Ocean Beach Farmers Market makes it easy to overlook the minor economic miracles that take place there each week. In a world where big box retailers and mega corporations have corrupted the concept of customer service and reduced quality to a mere slogan, the thousands of authentic connections that happen weekly at the market are a very good thing.
For Rey Knight’s Salumi Company, the concept of selling direct via farmers markets has proven to be a winner. In just over a year, Rey’s gone from working after hours in a restaurant kitchen (Urban Solace) making a few sausages to having a fully USDA inspected facility where more than a dozen varieties are made. In the early days, it was just Rey, schlepping out to a handful of markets after staying up all night. Now he’s got a couple of employees and is selling at ten or so markets each week.
Rey makes sausages—both dried and fresh—and cures meats. It’s a craft that’s as old as civilization, one that—until recent years—was all but forgotten in the onslaught of corporate homogenization of our food supply. Different cultures around the world developed a variety of techniques that were intended prevent spoilage in meats back in the days before refrigeration was commonplace. It was common for butchers to make sausages as means of using the whole animal after slaughter. In France, the craft’s creations came to be known as charcuterie. In Italy, it’s salumi. (Salami is but one type of salumi) In Germany, it’s wurst.
Curing and preserving meats has a lot in common with other food preservationist crafts. As food critic Jeffrey Stiengarten enthused, “[Salumi] is fermented food! It is the cheese of meat, the wine of pork, the sourdough of flesh! It is alive!”
I met Rey when he was first getting started many months ago at the North Park Farmer’s Market. I tried his early creations, riffs on a salami theme, including Finacchionia (salami with fennel), Genoa (salami with red wine, garlic & white pepper) and Cacciatori (salami with garlic, Chianti and black pepper), and marveled at the quality of the craft involved alongside the bold flavors that announced themselves on my palate.
Rey Knight started out cooking in the family’s restaurant and headed off to learn the trade at the Culinary Institute of America. From there it was off to France, Boston, New York, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Los Angeles. When his wanderlust abated, he found himself in San Diego, settling in to raise a family and pursue a life of what enjoyed doing most—making salumi.
Earlier this week, he graciously invited me up to see his built from scratch facility, nestled within a series of industrial warehouses up in Kearny Mesa. The plant consists of a tiny office, a small walk-in freezer, a large workspace—spotless and chilled to thirty eight degrees, and a temperature/humidity controlled aging room, filled with bakers racks hung with sausages in various stages of fermentation.
As is true with many modern day specialty food producers, Rey is extremely focused on the quality of his raw ingredients. His pork comes from certified humanly raised farms that utilize “Blue Butt” pigs, a hybrid cross between the Hampshire and Chester White breeds. His search for better ingredients is an ongoing process, but for now he feels that he’s utilizing the best quality pork for sausage making. “The most important things to know about pigs”, Rey tells me, “are breed, feed and age”. His pigs are finished with fruit and grains prior to slaughtering, giving the meat a slightly sweeter taste that adds complexity to the finished product. If hogs are slaughtered too young—as mass producers often do to speed up corporate cash flow—the texture of the fatty parts may be too soft for good sausage making.
Sausage making is an art form necessarily guided by science. Seasoning mix recipes are closely guarded secrets. Most producers use a combination of fermentation (induced by freeze dried benign bacterial cultures), saltpeter (nitrates) and salt. Reys’ sausages are unique in that they utilize live cultures (formulated locally by brewer’s yeast producer White Labs) and no nitrates are used in the curing process. He feels that his live fermentation cultures keep the desired color (reddish) in his finished products that nitrates are usually used for.
There have been health concerns in recent years about the safety of using nitrates and nitrites as a preservative. Sodium nitrite reacts with stomach acid and other chemicals in the stomach to produce nitrosamines, which have been shown to cause cancer in animals when consumed in large quantities. However, there’s not much sodium nitrate/nitrite in meats, and we consume sodium nitrate/nitrite from other foods as well, so it is not clear that they are harmful in the quantities we get from meats. His “salt only” preservation methods have come under a great deal of scrutiny from the USDA and have passed repeated and regular laboratory testing with flying colors.
After the meats and fats are ground to the proper consistency, the spices, salt, flavorings and cultures and mixed in and the resulting blend is stuffed into casings. The newly made kinks are hung carefully in the curing room, where they are tested regularly for ph and salinity. A benign lactobacillus colony present in the room causes a white mold to grow on the skins that is removed prior to sale.
Hanging in the corner are various “projects” that Rey has underway: several curing hams and a dozen or so duck proscuitti. He won’t be selling these just yet, as they haven’t cured to the point where they can be tested by the USDA and his processes certified for commercial production.
His sausage business has grown steadily over the past six months. He also makes a few fresh sausages that he grills up at some markets—the spicy one with gouda cheese (Kaiserkrainers) that’s stuffed into a half baguette with sauerkraut and mustard is really delicious. Rey is now making over a thousand pounds of sausage each week and boldly predicts that he could be making a ton a day by this time next year. A major natural foods retailer is poised to add his products to their lineup and he’s starting to do some serious business over the internet. Restaurants like Wine Vault, Starlite, the Ritual Tavern and the Farmhouse are showcasing the results of his craft to enthusiastic customers as are a handful of special and gourmet shops in the area. Less than six months after finishing his Kearny Mesa plant, he’s already poised to quadruple his production space to keep up with demand.
None of this would have been possible without the initial exposure that Rey Knight gained for his products through selling at Farmers Markets. For a craftsman looking to help revive a dying art, it’s been the perfect opportunity.
Originally posted on May 13, 2009.