By Sarah West
Olympia Provisions (formerly, Olympic Provisions) needs no introduction. Their cured salamis rose to national acclaim—by the likes of Saveur, Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, and Oprah magazines—just a few brisk years after chef Elias Cairo began producing them in November of 2009. Opening a restaurant of the same name in southeast Portland with a team of chef-restaurateur partners, Elias was not alone in creating Olympia Provisions’ success, but he was the man behind the plan for the restaurant’s ambitious meat-curing facility, the first of its kind in Oregon to be USDA-certified.
Influenced by a five-year chef apprenticeship in Switzerland, Cairo experienced firsthand the meticulous process behind some of Europe’s famous cured meats. Raised by a first-generation Greek father who butchered his own animals and brought salami along on every family outing, Cairo was predisposed to appreciate good cured meat. And when the opportunity to partner on a new restaurant project came his way, he was game for trying to recreate some of the nuanced flavors he experienced abroad.
From the beginning, Cairo has insisted that virtuous salami can only be made by hands, not machines, and must be cold-fermented under a bloom of white mold that not only preserves the meat, but lends it an inimitable umami-tang. When he and his restaurant partners designed the original curing facility, they could not have foreseen the two major expansions that would follow in the next four years, scaling up their meat processing facility from 800 square feet to 40,000. While these expansions forced Olympia Provisions to move away from the small-batch artisanal production (done exclusively by Cairo himself) they had originally envisioned, they have maintained a strong focus on hand-production.
Machines now mix the 4,500 pounds of pork they process each day in 150-pound “small” batches which are blended with spices and hand-peeled garlic to order then stuffed into a natural hog casing and tied by a team of four dexterous salumieris. In addition to their charcuterie line of 12 salami flavors, capicola, and mortadella, a given week finds them smoking some combination of their famed frankfurters, kielbasa, chorizo, sweetheart ham, and bacon, as well as mixing and stuffing their fresh chorizo, bratwurst, Italian sausage, rillete, pate, and mousse. Ever the innovators, this summer the OP team is launching a new product. Invited by Martha Stewart and Triscuit to collaborate on a classic summer sausage, their take on the iconic American picnic sausage includes a mellow blend of garlic, chili powder, and mustard seeds. They’ve also launched a line of pickled vegetables based on combinations they’ve been serving for years at their two Portland restaurants.
While the inspiration for their line of Old World influenced American charcuterie was always rooted in their restaurants, farmers markets played a key role in promoting the salamis to a wider audience. Their 2009 booth at the Portland OHSU market allowed them to learn what flavors people most responded to and gave them an opportunity to educate potential customers about their continually expanding product line via samples and conversation.
“We really value market culture,” says Olympia Provisions’ market manager, Kendra Nelson, “because it gives us a chance to meet our customers face-to-face, and we get to see their reaction when they taste that perfect piece of salami.”
Over the years, OP has expanded to include fifteen Portland-area farmers markets at last count, joining Hillsdale in 2010.
Olympia Provisions sells at Hillsdale Farmers Market year-round, offering a selection of their cured salamis, sausages, and smoked meats. Nelson suggests that market shoppers get to her booth before noon, as, “All the best things (including our summer sausage and kielbasa) sell out early!”
As for what to do with that perfect piece of salami, the possibilities are endless, but Nelson highly recommends this Hillsdale-Market-inspired combination:
“One of my favorite market snacks is an open-face sandwich with Fraga Farm chevre, thin slices of our finocchiona (our Italian salami with fennel), thick slabs of the prettiest and most colorful tomatoes I can find, olive oil, and Jacobsen sea salt.” How about putting that on a slice of wood-fired ciabatta from Tastebud for bonus points?
Learn more about the Olympia Provisions line of artisanal meats, visit their shop (and send a piece of Portland food culture to distant friends and family), and peruse their restaurants’ menus at olympiaprovisions.com.