CHARCUTERIE is an ancient craft originally intended as a way to preserve meat (usually pork) before the advent of refrigeration. It is carried on today for the unique flavours derived from the preservation process and is an integral part of modern cuisine.
In medieval times local guilds were developed to regulate the food production industry in each city and by the 15th century in France the guilds that produced charcuterie were the “charcutiers.” Consequently “charcuterie” became a generic term for the products traditionally sold by charcutiers (pork butchers), and is typified by a platter of cuts of meats and sausages prepared and preserved in various ways.
It is not so long ago that a trip to the continent would provide the only opportunity for us Brits to try out wafer thin air dried hams, slithers of salami or spicy Spanish Chorizo sausages. As more of us began to get a taste for continental cuisine this led to an increased demand for imported continental products and nowadays our deli counters would be incomplete without a dazzling array of charcuterie from France, Italy and Spain.
Over the past five years there has been a gradual emergence of West Country based charcuterie. Initially the pioneering Ellises’ farm blazed a trail atl farmers markets using their own Gloucester Old Spot Pork to produce mouth-watering artisan salamis, chorizo, air dried hams and cured meats using traditional methods with no nitrates or artificial preservatives. Since then we’ve seen each year a couple of new pork producers begin to learn the ancient craft and it would now be unusual to visit one of our farmers markets and not be able to choose from a range of Somerset produced salamis or be invited to try Coppa – cured ham from the neck – or Lomo – cured tenderloin.
So how did this British take on charcuterie come about? Its emergence seems to have sprung from smaller producers keen to preserve Britain’s flavoursome traditional animal breeds. Taking longer to rear than modern hybrid breeds, traditional breeds hold less water, more fat and often more flavour. Pigs such as Saddlebacks and Tamworths don’t necessarily lend themselves well to intensive farming methods or supermarket shelves, but they do make extraordinarily good charcuterie. In order to make these traditional breeds sustainable, producers have had to get creative. Temperature-adjustable drying rooms allow them to mimic a hotter European climate, while some producers simply air-dry their charcuterie naturally, giving the finished products their own unique flavours.
Here’s a quick guide to some of the main types available and the processes involved!
Chorizo are spicy sausages, which have been traditionally made all over Spain and Portugal. There are lots of regional varieties but all are made with pork and flavoured with smoked paprika. Chorizo is available smoked or unsmoked, mild or spicy and is sometimes flavoured with garlic or wine.
Salami is the name given to a family of cut-and-keep sausages made from a mixture of raw meat such as pork, beef or veal flavoured with spices and herbs. Salami originated in Italy but different varieties are now made around the world. Salami can be salted, smoked or air-dried.
Pancetta is an Italian type of bacon produced from belly of pork which is seasoned, then rolled up like salami and dry cured. Flat slabs of pancetta are also available and this is normally how you’d find it in Italy.
Prosciutto means “ham” in Italian and is a term particularly used to describe ham that has been seasoned, cured and air-dried. ‘
Salt serves four main purposes in the preservation of food in the charcuterie kitchen. The first is inducing osmosis. This process involves the movement of water outside the membranes of the cells, which in turn reabsorb the salted water back into the cell; this process assists in the destruction of harmful pathogens. The second is dehydration, which means the salt pulls excess water from the protein, which aids in the shelf-life of the protein, as there is less moisture present for bacterial growth. Fermentation is the third, in which salt assists in halting the fermentation process which would otherwise completely break the meat down. Finally, salt assists in denaturing the proteins, which in essence means the structure of the proteins is effectively shifted, similar to the effects of cooking!
As we are all becoming more concerned about eating closer to home and knowing exactly where our meat products are from the demand for local charcuterie is growing – and with the range and quality available it can equal or better its imported equivalent!
Look out for Ellises’ farm at Wells and Burnham on Sea farmers markets; Somerset Farm Traditional breeds at Frome, Wells and Crewkerne; and Kimbers and Moonacre farm at Frome and Midsomer Norton. The Good Life Pork Company are launching their new range at Glastonbury in the coming months.
For more information about local farmers markets visit www.somersetfarmersmarkets.co.uk
Pictured are a typical display of charcuterie; salami; and chorizo.