When Tom Douglas seeks you out—not just for your product, but to see how you make your product—you’re likely doing something right. Such is the case for Bob Blade, who started his own dry-cured meat business, Salt Blade, a one-man operation he runs out of a small facility on Aurora Avenue North.
Blade’s is the only salami operation in Seattle besides the famous Salumi in Pioneer Square with the USDA certification required to sell wholesale charcuterie to grocery stores and restaurants. His delicious salamis, soppressata, pepperoni, and mortadella are now available at Douglas’ Home Remedy, Marx Foods, Picnic, Green Market, and The Feed Store, plus the Magnolia Farmers Market.
Seattle’s love affair with charcuterie is evident by its presence on nearly every fashionable restaurant menu of late, but few realize the tremendous commitment that goes into its production.
Visiting Blade at work, I’m of course blown away by nibbles of orange-coriander salami and even an Indonesian-inspired one, with ingredients like fresh garlic, galangal, Thai bird chilies, and the turmeric that gives it a yellow sheen. But what really grabs my attention are the binders full of pages and pages of data: log-ins of times and temperatures, pH levels and Listeria tests, water ratios and calibrations, and the documentation of dozens upon dozens of standard operating procedures—all requirements that the USDA deems critical for the safe consumption of meats that never touch heat, but are “cooked” through the centuries-old salt-curing process.
Besides the fastidious record-keeping, a USDA inspector checks in on Blade every single weekday and holds him accountable to the same standards that a mega-meat-processing facility is (he’s on his third inspector, as they change them up every six months). For instance, he even needs a decibel meter to monitor the “ambient noise” level, because in large, loud factories with lots of industrial equipment, workers may require earplugs to protect their hearing. In this small space, where Bob works alone, you could hear a pin (or a piece of salami) drop.
I get the feeling that my mere presence here, in this sterile and über-monitored environment, is going to cause him hours of extra work.
Yet for all the USDA’s rigorous controls, Blade says there’s no real manual for how to set up a shop like his. The language in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) can be very vague, calling for things like “washable ceilings” and “adequate sinks” without any insight into what they actually mean. “I’d call them and say ‘Is this washable?’ [referring to the hand-cut ceiling tiles he created to enable easy removal and cleaning], and they’d say ‘I don’t know.’ ” It’s not until they actually arrive and physically view the space that they can make those calls. Until then, Blade’s dependent mostly on the Internet for information. But he isn’t jaded about the process at all; in fact, he says he welcomes that level of detail. (By contrast, delis and restaurants processing meat in-house need undergo only two annual inspections from the King County Health Department, and never even deal with the USDA. It’s just not logistically feasible for them to visit so many places.)
Blade received his Federal Grant of Inspection in October 2014 after his Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point Plans (HACCP) for each class of cured product passed muster—the golden ticket to making legitimate charcuterie instead of secretly producing out of a meat locker in your basement, which, all kidding aside, is what many food professionals do for fun. It’s what Blade did for five years before going live, perfecting his processes and recipes for friends and family.
Did the former software-company owner ever question his path? Hell, yes. “It’s a fully angst-ridden process,” he says with a chuckle as he takes a bite of his “Tuscan” salami: Deep, dark red, it’s seasoned with toasted fennel seed, red wine, garlic, and pepper and just begs for a robust cab to wash it down. He does offer me wine, but it’s 11 a.m. and I’m driving, so I reluctantly pass.
Blade is quick to admit that he put a lot of his own money into the business, and almost backed out for fear of not being profitable until he hired a business coach in 2013 to help him crunch the numbers. Then he found a marketing person, a graphic designer, and, in June 2014, this space, where Blade gives me a basic rundown of his process for curing 50 pounds of meat a week. It starts with the grinding of the pork and grass-fed beef, purchased fresh from Olsen Farms in Colville, Washington. Into the grinder go fresh ingredients like garlic. Once ground, the spices are added, along with nitrates (for preserving) and the lactic acid–producing bacteria that is critical to ensure pH levels drop to the right number.
From there it’s stuffed into casings and left to hang in the fermentation chamber, a souped-up baking rack where the bacteria does its work, turning sugars into lactic acid (similar to brewing beer, which Blade also dabbled in, or making a bread starter). After 24 hours, the meat moves to a curing chamber where it dries—a process that can take from three to seven weeks depending on casing sizes and fat content (leaner meats dry faster). It’s then ready for packing and, of course, selling.
Getting his product to market has been probably the easiest part: It started with a call from Lower Queen Anne’s Marx Foods, where chefs and serious home cooks go to find the most cutting-edge and delicious foodstuffs on the market. The owner heard about him through a customer. “I still don’t know who it is, but I figure they met me at the Farmer-Fisher-Chef Connection conference. I feel like I at least owe them some meat,” he jokes. (Reader: If you are that customer, come forth and reveal yourself!) Douglas’ Home Remedy team found out about him at the same conference, went to check out the facility and put in orders for the store. That was a very cool and memorable moment for Blade, as one can imagine.
So what’s in store for Blade? Plans to expand his facility, increase his output to 500 pounds (10 times what he’s currently doing), gain entrée into 20 more grocery stores, and upgrade equipment. And of course dream up new recipes. All the ones he uses now come from his many years of home experimentation, and once a month he tests a different one at the Magnolia Farmers Market on Saturday. Next up: a porcini mushroom-and-sage salami. Oh, and his first time dealing with the downpours and gusting winds that beset the area last weekend. But given everything he’s managed to pull off throughout this intensive labor of love, it’s doubtful that a little bad weather will scare him off.