Robert Belcham has been cooking great restaurant meals in Vancouver for a long time now. He was in the kitchen at C for a time, and then started Fuel (now called Refuel) and Campagnolo. Local and sustainable have been mantras of his since before the public really got ahold of the idea, making it, these days, almost a redundancy. But of course it is not: Belcham invests time, funds, and space on his menus to a wide variety of very old-fashioned dishes, all of which resonate with this region.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in what he and business partner Tom Doughty call the Cure. In a small space above Campagnolo there is a little meat-curing facility, hand-built by Belcham. Here, he smokes, cures and works everyday miracles of flavour with some impressive pork he sources on Vancouver Island. The result is some of the finest charcuterie to be found on this or any other planet.
The meat comes from Sloping Hill Farm, just outside of Qualicum Beach. Here, the animals lead a life of bliss and leisure. The breeding stock consists out of Hampshire, Duroc and Berkshire pigs, which are both pure and crossbred at the farm. All animals have access to the outdoors at any time. No animal by-products are used in the feed. No hormones, antibiotics or growth enhancers, ever. The meat contains a high percentage of intramuscular fat, is darker, has more marbling and thus has better flavour than conventionally raised pork.
“Only one per cent of the animal goes to waste,” Belcham says. “We pretty much use it all.” There are the obvious prime cuts, which he uses in a variety of ways and preparations at both restaurants. But he also is self-taught in the craft of charcuterie, “something that is over 2,000 years old,” he says. There is a bacterial starter culture, then salt, sugar and spices are added, all vital to the final product. He even makes salami inflected by fennel pollen, resulting in a sublimely resonant flavor, not out of place in the hills of Friuli.
The salt and natural amino acids interact, and a completely natural MSG is one of the by-products, helping to create these miracles of bold, rich flavours and textures. There is chorizo, various salamis and sausages, and soppressata that any Sicilian or Calabrian would be happy to claim as their own. The charcuterie platter at Campagnolo is in itself worth the trip, lunch or dinner.
Every month or so during the summer, some of these products can be purchased at the farmer’s market near Terminal and Main in Vancouver—not far from Campagnolo’s front door. There are whispers that select other chefs have been able to coax a few items from Belcham as well, but we leave that to the discerning palates to determine for themselves. The bottom line is that he has developed an impressive skill in his charcuterie making, and the fact that it is completely natural, from hoof to plate, simply adds to the charm of it.
It adds to the flavour, too. Belcham gets passionate—for him at least since he is a modest and soft-spoken person—as he discusses the animals. “When I first visited the farm, and met the people at Sloping Hill, it was so obvious they were doing everything in a clean, natural, humane way. All of those factors affect the quality, the flavour, of the meat.” He pauses, before going on. “You know the ad campaigns, saying pork is the other white meat. Well, in the case of these animals, the meat actually isn’t white at all, but quite dark, almost like beef. And it has so much more intense flavour. I love working with it.”
No preservatives, no additives, no waste really to speak of, coming fresh from a farm a ferry boat ride away, where the animals have the willful run of the place. Care and painstaking attention to the methodology, long ago established, of curing and preserving meats. It all adds up to a fabulous experience; a variety of house-made cold cuts, some fresh bread, and perhaps a half-litre of cold, lean white wine. What could be finer, other than the company you care to share it with.