By Elizabeth Winslow
Photography by Jenna Noel
Ben Runkle, owner of Salt & Time Artisanal Salumi, used to be a devout vegan. Then one day he had an epiphany and came to believe that the environmental issues he was hoping to solve through diet might be better addressed by eating responsibly—and this, he realized, could include eating sustainably raised meat.
“I was a vegetarian, and then a vegan, for ten years,” he explains.
“But one day I looked at the processed soy chicken substitute I was eating and I realized the issue was a lot more complicated than I had at first thought. Being a ‘junk food vegan’ wasn’t solving anything.”
He began to research sources of protein for his newly carnivorous diet; he read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and joined the Marin Sun Farms CSA program in the Bay Area, where he lived at the time. “Dave Evans, the owner of Marin Sun, was such an inspiration to me,” Runkle says. “Dave was inspired by [natural meat gurus] Joel Salatin and Bill Niman. He started raising one cow a year on grass, and now he is one of the largest sustainable producers of beef in the nation. His business is totally integrated—he raises the beef, processes it, butchers it and is the retail and wholesale outlet for it. He completely changed the way I think about meat.”
Runkle was so inspired, he took on a butchering apprenticeship at Marin Sun. In the meantime, he was becoming increasingly fascinated with old-world, artisanal methods of curing meats, and began experimenting with salumi, the cured sausages and meats of Italy. “I learned so much from Dave, and working there was like a magic key that opened all the doors into the best restaurant kitchens in the Bay Area.” Runkle also took on stages (when a chef works briefly, for free, in another chef's kitchen to learn new techniques and cuisines) at Fatted Calf in Napa and Avedano’s in San Francisco—two highly respected markets that make charcuterie and cured meats in-house.
“I definitely found my own style and methods for curing meats, but I could never have done any of it without the community and mentoring I was able to get during this time. I had to construct and refine my process, and then magnify it to a commercial level. People are still amazed that I make salumi. Oftentimes at the market or at events, I have to explain to them that, yes, I started with half a pig, and I wound up with . . . this!” He points to the beautifully deep crimson links of Genoa, soppressata, chorizo and peperone hanging in his curing room.
Runkle does indeed begin with half a hog from Richardson Farms each week. He breaks down the cuts and saves the belly and loin for pancetta, bacon, lonzino and lomo, which are cured whole and not stuffed into casings. The rest is then boned out, ground, mixed with spices and stuffed into casings for salumi. After being introduced to a European starter culture, the salumi spends 48 hours in a fermenting cabinet, which produces lactic acid, preserving the meat and producing its traditional characteristic tang.
The next step in the process takes place in the walk-in drying room, which is kept between 50 and 60 degrees. The air inside is cool, and weighted with a seductively rich scent. Runkle ages his product longer than most do—over two months. This allows the flavors to intensify and become more complex.
While the long wait makes for great charcuterie, it doesn’t necessarily fit the modern business model of turning a quick profit on your investment. “I chose the name Salt & Time because they’re the two most important ingredients I add to my products,” Runkle says. “I take a Mediterranean approach to my products, both in style and flavor, but also to the process of creating it. I’m willing to put time into it because it makes a better product, and you can’t rush that.”
Other aspects also help make Runkle’s business model workable. His overhead is extremely low, for example. He operates out of Niederwald, where commercial property is affordable, and runs all aspects of the business with only one employee, Thomas Shears, a talented extern from Le Cordon Bleu in Austin. In addition to pork-based salumi, Runkle has made handmade hot dogs with pork and Naturally Dolce Farms beef, mortadella with Thunder Heart Bison, and wild boar prosciutto, and has plans to try some new recipes with lamb. He also makes a wide variety of seasonal pickles with produce from local farms to complement the salumi.
Runkle’s connection to traditional methods and to the community he lives in are palpable. “I love working with all the great farmers and ranchers in the area. My mission is to promote producers who are using sustainable methods, working hard to heal the land. If it wasn’t for these farmers and ranchers,” he says with conviction, “I couldn’t do what I do. They are really the rock stars of the food world.”
Salt & Time
1912 E 7th St.
Genoa: dry-cured pork sausage seasoned with red wine, pepper and garlic
Sopressata: dry-cured pork sausage seasoned with white wine, chili and garlic
Chorizo: dry-cured, Spanish-style pork sausage with smoked pimentón (paprika) and chili
Lomo: whole cured pork loin with chili and cumin
Lonzino: whole cured pork loin with fennel, juniper and nutmeg
Pancetta: whole cured pork belly with pepper and juniper