The next in our series of Æthelmearc Artisan Profiles, from Meesteres Odriana vander Brugghe: Cassandra Matis
When faced with a gift basket filled with a variety of bacon that was vacuum-packed, uncooked and still in perfect condition, Her Ladyship Cassandra Matis started on a path that has led to her being a recognized expert in meat curing. We were fortunate that she came to live here in Æthelmearc and has been as generous with her knowledge as she has been with her tasty bacon and cured ham.
Cas, as she prefers to be called, is originally from Massachusetts. Her first real cooking job was at Plimouth Plantation, a living history museum that focuses on the Plymouth Colony. While she has always had an interest in cooking it was that gift basket that really changed everything. Cas realized that she could learn how to make everything in that basket and with the encouragement of her late husband, she started learning how to cure meat.
Curing is a preservation method that can use salting, drying, or smoking. The most commonly known cured meats are salami, jerky, bacon, and prosciutto. Curing encompasses not only meat but vegetables, which Cas also makes. She describes curing as “a combination of chemistry, biology, art, and science”, particularly when dealing with medieval meat curing recipes, which can be maddeningly vague (“..until it takes the salt well.”) and then suddenly specific, usually with time and ingredients.
The immediate difference that Cas noticed with homemade cured meats was that the taste was significantly better than that of store bought cured meats. As she gained a certain degree of skill, she began sharing her cured meats through dayboards to make it more approachable for the average Scadian.
When asked about how she determined success, Cas told me that it was “getting to the end of the process as there is potential for failure at every step”. With that being said, she also admitted that through her years of experience she now has a nearly 100% success rate with what she makes. At the time that we spoke, she had about 75 pounds of meat in various stages of curing in her house.
Her love of all things cured has meant that when she bought her new home, one of the first things that she had done was having a meat-curing room installed in her basement so that she would no longer have to use dorm refrigerators and a variety of regular refrigerators to store her curing meat.
While meat curing is certainly what she is best known for, Cas is extremely proud of her cheese, beer, and bread-making. In fact, she loves making beer as much as she loves making cured meats. She makes her bread using a 21-year-old yeast starter she calls “Herm” and credits with being the longest relationship she’s had in her life.
Cas focuses on German culture during our period of study, Sabina Welserin, in particular. She has even found that there is an Italian primary source of the same vintage as Welserin that has much of the same information and has been doing research into that. She also uses Scappi a great deal in her cooking research. She loves using medieval curing methods, but will make concessions to ensure food safety such as using plastic tubs rather than wooden boxes to cure meats.
Her modern cooking heroes cut across all cuisines and, of course, includes Michael Ruhlman, the father of the modern artisan charcuterie movement and whom she refers to as the “Dale Chihuly of Charcuterie”. Her other culinary heroes are Jacques Pepin, Alton Brown (“He made it cool to be geeky about food.”), Jasper Cook, Anthony Bourdain (“I admire his ability to travel and eat anything.”), Gordon Ramsey, and Peter Reinhart.
Her Scadian inspiration is Master Basilius Phocas, the Midrealm Laurel best known for his work with Byzantine food and culture.
When asked about her future plans, Cas said that she would very much like to be making her living making a variety of cured meats, have a smoke house/spring house on her property, and expand her knowledge and work as a sausage maker. I have no doubt that she will be achieving these goals as well as any others she sets her mind towards.
 For those unfamiliar with Chihuly’s work, his glass sculptures are considered fully unique to the blown glass field due to the composition and scale of his work. Particularly considering there are myriad technical difficulties when working with blown glass and large-scale works like Chihuly’s, moreso. For more information about Dale Chihuly, please visit his website: http://www.chihuly.com/.