The Best of British Charcuterie for Terra Madre
The word ‘charcuterie’ conjures up for me a platter of cured meats on a wooden board in a brasserie in France. I’m expecting slices of saucisson, ham and salamis. There will be cornichons scattered about casually. A basket of freshly baked baguette, sliced. What ‘charcuterie’ doesn’t immediately suggest to me is ‘British’. But recent years have changed all that. Any visitor to Borough Market or any number of food markets in the UK cannot fail to notice the number of stalls selling cured meats that are local rather than French, Italian or Spanish. There are British companies now curing local meats using the sorts of traditional techniques we have grown to love from our European neighbours.
I was curious to know more about the history of British charcuterie and the opportunity to do so came with an invitation to join a Zoom tasting with Henrietta Green, founder of British Charcuterie Live, an organisation that champions and promotes British Charcuterie. This session formed part of the Terra Madre Fringe, itself part of Terre Madre – a slow food festival that takes place annually in Turin. I have long salivated over the Terra Madre festival and wished I could travel to Italy for the experience. Due to the pandemic, the 2020 Terra Madre Fringe has moved online. In advance of the zoom event on British charcuterie, a tantalising tasting box arrived at my door.
The event was hosted by Henrietta Green who is a doyenne of British cuisine. A renowned, award-winning food writer and broadcaster, she was instrumental in launching Borough Market as a consumer market as well as promoting the development of farmer’s markets, destinations we now take for granted as part of our foodie exploration. In recent years she has championed the renaissance of British charcuterie, promoting, consulting to producers and retail outlets, restaurants and more.
Charcuterie, Green informed us, means cooked meat (from the French ‘chair’ meaning meat or flesh and ‘cuit’ meaning cooked). In France, charcuterie dates back to the 15th century when charcutiers set up shop all over the country. They were only allowed to sell pig flesh – except during Lent when eel and fish were permitted. They produced and sold both cooked meat – pate, boudin, rillettes as well as fresh and cured sausages many of which any visitor to a French market will recognise in the form of saucisson. French charcuterie refers to cooked and cured products even though cooked ones, such as pâté or terrine, would not last as long as the cured meats.
British charcuterie also dates back to the 15th century when pig was part of the cottage economy. Most well to do cottages had a pig and once a year the pig would be slaughtered and every bit of it used, except the whistle as the saying goes. Some of the meat was eaten fresh, but much was cured for preservation in very traditional ways. The UK tradition of curing was of salting and cooking. This was probably related to the climate. On the continent, there is a bigger disparity between summer and winter and, most importantly, a drier climate which all lends itself to air-dried meats. In the UK, the drying was done over fire. Nowadays, fermenting cabinets can dry and ferment the meat which can then be air-dried like the Italian prosciutto.
The industrial revolution of the mid 19th century led to a faster exodus from rural areas in the UK than in some continental countries which resulted in the loss of traditional preserving methods like hanging salted hams over the hearth through the winter.
Charcuterie includes cured meats but is not exclusively so as not all charcuterie is cured. British charcuterie traditionally has referred to products such as black pudding, haggis, ham, potted meats, chitterlings and faggots. These products use every bit of the pig. While charcuterie can include other farm animals as well as game, it is predominantly made from pig.
A renaissance in British charcuterie has taken place over the past years and Green believes fervently that it can become internationally renowned in the same way that British cheese and wine have done over the past decade. While British charcuterie has a long history dating back centuries, it is, in its current form, a nascent industry, suggested Green, and there are many opportunities for development beyond the traditional products like pork pies, faggots and potted meats. The values of British charcuterie are continually in discussion amongst producers. Some emphasise the importance of sourcing British reared animals that are traditional or rare breed. Others emphasise the high welfare standard over the breed itself. Some use foraged foods – such as the Highland Charcuterie in Scotland who use local plants in their products, giving their meat a distinctive flavour and link to the terroir.
Nowadays, there is so much British charcuterie to choose from that Henrietta Green had a difficult choice in narrowing down the Zoom tasting to a mere four samples. She chose to showcase charcuterie from two, award-winning companies. Two examples derive from Tempura Foods and the others from Trealy Farm in Monmouthshire. Both companies use British free-range pork and combine traditional European curing methods with traditions that are part of British culinary history.
Before we began the tasting, Green taught us what to consider. Based on the tasting notes judges use during charcuterie awards competitions, we were advised to think about eye appeal, aroma, feel, eating qualities and texture. The meat needs to be a good colour, clear and clean, well-trimmed. It should have the aroma of the farmyard, a clean animal smell. It should not feel too cold. It must have a ‘wow’ flavour that does not disappear but that develops and reverberates and possibly takes on other notes in the mouth. Flavours should be balanced, not too sharp or salty or sweet. The texture refers to the quality of the chew.
Tempus Foods is part of the new wave of British charcuterie producers. Tom Whitaker and Druv Baker have combined their experiences as experienced chefs and started their company a mere three years ago with a vision to produce the best British charcuterie and to get it accepted as a viable alternative to its Continental cousins. They use the Large Black breed of pig for their charcuterie as it has an excellent ratio of lean to fat. Only ex- breeding sows are used as charcuterie needs fat pigs. This has given new use to breeding sows given that in England there has been a move towards leaner and less fat animals in pig production. The sows are over 4 years old and provide flavour and marbling that a smaller, younger animal cannot. It also reflects the philosophy of using animals that are already in existence.
We tasted the Spiced Loin which was a delicate slice with a hint of spice (star anise, mace, clove and black pepper) and a clean white fat which gave a buttery texture.
The achari salami’s spicing is based on an Indian pickling recipe dating back centuries. It includes fennel seeds, Talicherry black pepper and fenugreek. The achari salami won two gold awards in the 2019 British Charcuterie live championships – best heritage product and champion product.
James Swift who owns Trealy Farm is one of the first innovators in British Charcuterie, having produced charcuterie over the past 17 years. While he grew up in the UK, he had a French mother and grandmother and spent holidays in France where he became familiar with French charcuterie. He is one of the UK’s largest producers and anyone who has enjoyed a salami pizza from Pizza Express will have tasted one of his products.
From Trealy Farm we tasted British Rose Veal Salami and Hot Smoked Bath Chaps.
Hot Smoked over beech, Bath Chaps is a traditional product enlivened with a well-chosen mix of spices. I have never eaten this product and was fascinated by its history which I read about on the very informative British Charcuterie Live website (www.britishcharcuterielive).
The Bath Chap is described as a British delicacy that has been overlooked and neglected over the past century, unlike its Italian relative, Guanciale. The name itself suggests part of its history. The chap is the lower half of the pig’s cheek, thought to derive from the word ‘chop’ which, in the 16th century, referred to an animal’s jaws and cheeks.
The city of Bath is close to the pig rearing counties of Wiltshire and Gloucestershire and processed pigs centuries ago, particularly the Gloucester Old Spots that had a distinctive long and fleshy jaw. Traditionally, the Bath Chap was cooked and cured in the manner of a whole ham. Then it was pressed into a cone-shaped mould and coated in breadcrumbs. There is a recipe on the website should readers wish to try their hand at this. The Bath Chap I tasted during the British Charcuterie Live event was of a more contemporary version.
Bath Chaps is a very fatty product which I had not encountered previously. Green suggested eating it with a cornichon or pickled radish to cut through the richness. This particular Chap is cured, pressed and cooked and then lightly smoked over beech, then sliced. Green thought it would go well with a slice of sourdough which we had sliced in preparation.
Trealy Farm rose veal salami makes use of the often-discarded male dairy calf. The veal is blended with pork, lemon and thyme and sounded intriguing and was my favourite of the tasting. It looked like a normal salami, but the surprise came with the aroma and taste. It was light and fresh with a beautiful citrus scent and a finishing note of lemon thyme and lemon. I don’t associate citrus flavours with salami so this meat tasted really interesting to me. This is one for my Christmas list.
The Terra Madre is a worldwide slow food festival with physical and digital events running through until April 2021. You can access the digital events on the website, www.slowfood.com.
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