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Food & Drink

Valley envisioned as home to world-class dairy, meats

PALMER -- There are signs that a quiet meat revolution may be taking root in the Matanuska Valley.

A Wasilla game processor now sells house-made soppressata and prosciutto from what he believes is the most extensive house-made charcuterie counter in the state. In February, more than 300 people paid $25 at the Palmer Train Depot to taste delicacies like blood sausage and head cheese.

It's all because of Francois Vecchio, a man once known as the "Poet of Pork." For more than 50 years the Swiss-born Vecchio has devoted himself to the art of curing meats and making sausage.

"He's a sausage evangelist," said Tom Pickett, a Kauai pizza shop and bakery owner who traveled to Alaska to spend a week studying with Vecchio.

Vecchio and his wife retired to Palmer after a career building major salami and sausage companies in Switzerland and America, and serving as a consultant to top chefs. He said Palmer looked like home.

He believes the Matanuska Valley has the raw materials to become a little Switzerland -- producing world-class dairy and meat products from mountainsides turned grazing lands.

Mid-slope, where alder trees now grow, Vecchio sees lush summer pasture for fat, happy livestock.

"Cows eating flowers and green grass in the summer!" he said. "When I squint, it becomes closer to what it could be."

But some say developing a viable artisan meat industry in the valley faces big barriers.

Sausage Evangelist

What Vecchio would really like to see is livestock raised locally and transformed into specialty products by highly trained craftsmen. The products would then be sold in the state and Outside, earning Alaska a reputation for excellent salami as well as great salmon.

For the last six months, Vecchio has been imparting his old-world skills to influential Lower 48 chefs visiting Alaska for his week-long workshops.

Vecchio and four students -- Pickett, two caterers from San Francisco and a high-end pig farmer from upstate New York -- gathered last week at Mat Valley Meats in Wasilla to turn six pigs into bratwurst, pâté de campagne, chorizo and a dozen other products.

Pickett and Vecchio met when a vacationing Vecchio struck up a conversation about sausage with Pickett at his pizzeria. The next thing he knew Vecchio was teaching him to make bratwurst in his kitchen. Vecchio even spent part of the same vacation having a "passionate" discussion with workers at Kauai's only slaughterhouse, Pickett said.

If Vecchio is a crusader, it's because he believes American meat has been stripped of its soul by corporate food scientists more concerned with chemistry and mass production than art.

"Their focus is to comply with regulations and satisfy the paper trail," he said.

Stephen Silva, who owns Melons Catering in San Francisco, says Vecchio offers "the old-world science" of meat curing: he can sniff a smoked ham and tell whether it is ready. That kind of knowledge, Silva said, is rapidly fading.

Barriers

But there are obstacles to Vecchio's vision of the Matanuska Valley as a local meat paradise.

Nate Burris of Mat Valley Meats has been making and selling fancy artisan meats at his store for more than a year. To expand, his pig suppliers would need to be able to fulfill orders -- not just supply whatever animals happened to be available. Burris is certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for his retail business, which picks up in the off-season when his shop isn't flooded with game to process.

But if he were to start a resale business -- for example, selling to restaurants or grocery stores -- he would have to deal with a new level of USDA inspection. He might need to hire two or three people just to deal with that on a daily basis, he said.

"If I had about $5 million, I'd build a plant," he said. "But the payoff isn't there."

Many of his customers drive from Anchorage to buy his locally cured meats, he said.

Another issue: The green hillsides that Vecchio sees turning into pastures are likely worth more if developed as home sites. The state would have to get behind the effort by offering land, Vecchio concedes.

Danny Consenstein, the head of the USDA's state Farm Service Agency, says what Vecchio is doing is the "small strategy" rather than the large-scale, state-supported and not-always-successful agricultural endeavors Alaska has been known for.

That's a good thing, Consenstein said. And some of those supply issues may work themselves out if the demand is there.

For now, Vecchio and his visitors work on their pigs, using every part from snout to tail.

At the end of the week, he says, they will hold a "dignified" feast.

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.

By MICHELLE THERIAULT BOOTS

Anchorage Daily News

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