The rise of British charcuterie

We’ve also been making a few salamis. It’s still very much work in progress but everybody seems to like them. At the moment they’re available in mixed packs (Napoli, Finocchiona and smoked Montbeliard types) for £24.95 a kg. The Guardian recently trumpeted the rise of British charcuterie, see below, particularly the regional variations; seaweed and cider or blood, wine and chocolate for example. We’re keeping it simple to start with but, no doubt, those creative juices will start flowing at some point.

In 2004, when James Swift was setting up Monmouthshire’s Trealy Farm Charcuterie, the concept seemed ludicrous. “All the business advice was: ‘Don’t do this, it’s crazy – no one has heard of these products.’” The Welsh government, then ploughing money into food businesses, conducted some market research: “They interviewed 200 people … and no one had heard of the word ‘charcuterie’.”

Trealy Farm now produces up to seven tonnes of cured meats a month. Its products were first embraced by top chefs including Mark Hix, John Torode and Angela Hartnett, but when Trealy Farm pitches up at Usk farmers’ market today, the public attitude is very different, too. “Now it’s, ‘Oh, yeah, lomo – there’s a Rick Stein recipe for that.’ People are interested. They’re not scared of charcuterie.”

Artisan charcuterie is “exploding”, says Sean Cannon from Cannon & Cannon, a dedicated British charcuterie distributor. According to his figures, in 2010, there were 19 British charcuterie makers; in 2017, there are more than 200, located everywhere from Hackney (Black Hand Food) to Northumberland (North Wall Charcuterie), while numerous charcuterie-led venues, such as Newcastle’s Box Social or Leeds’ Friends of Ham, prominently feature British cured meats.

Cannon recently opened Nape in London, an exclusively British charcuterie bar, in what could come to be seen as a coming of age for the industry. “At the moment,” says Cannon, “the big Italian and French producers don’t care. It’s like British cheese 10 years ago. They said: ‘It’s a fad, it’ll pass, they’ll never compete with us.’ Well, we’re coming. Quality is higher. The industry is going to take big steps over the next 10 years.” Steps that – ironically, in this most Europhile of industries – some observers predict will be boosted by Brexit. According to producers, the currently weak pound means that the cost of imported European charcuterie has risen by around 10%, and so the British version – historically, a problematically expensive, niche product –now looks far more competitive. Restaurant magazine has tipped UK cured meats to take off and remain-voter Cannon agrees: “Brexit is ripe for British charcuterie. And there is good stuff, morally and ethically, that may come from thinking about our future as a food-producing country. It makes sense to buy locally and sustainably.”

No one is disputing the enduring quality of European charcuterie (“There are exceptional European hams that have taken 250 years to develop, there’s nothing else like them,” says Cannon), but it is also true that in certain specialities – such as experimental salamis, venison bresaola and air-dried mutton – Britain is now producing distinctive, world-class products of its own. “We have the potential to make the best charcuterie in the world because we raise the best livestock. I’m convinced of that,” says Cannon.

While there is training available in the UK (Nottinghamshire’s School of Artisan Food runs a charcuterie course), most artisan producers hone their knowledge in southern Europe. “We had to learn the microbiology. Otherwise the ideas are not transferable. We can’t hang things on Welsh hillsides the way they do in Tuscany – they’d rot,” says Swift, who also studied at German universities. Yet, from the outset, he was determined to produce British products. “We wanted to differentiate our product on quality, distinctiveness and being definitively British – not just using British meat, but adjusting for British tastes.”

Arguably, this is where British charcuterie is at its most exciting. Continental charcuterie is a highly traditional, rule-bound world. British producers experiment freely in their use of aromatics, meats or cuts. “It’s an incredibly innovative playing field,” say Cannon, “some of it amazing, some of it, frankly, horrible.”

Cannon loves Trealy Farm’s blood, wine & chocolate salami and Black Hand’s brawn salami. Friends of Ham owner Anthony Kitching prefers to serve British charcuterie that has a clear British identity: “If you can get an amazing finnochiona [fennel-seed salami] from an Italian producer for £20 per kilo and a British one at £30 per kilo, what’s the point? It’s nice when people make unique or quintessentially British products, such as Bath chaps. Rather than copy the Italians, Cornish Charcuterie makes a seaweed and cider salami using local ingredients. It’s got that terroir thing going on.”

James Ratcliffe and Nina Matsunaga make a ham from local lamb for their Cumbrian restaurant, Three Hares. Much like the Clove Club’s Isaac McHale or the Reliance’s Tom Hunter in Leeds, they are part of a new parallel movement of chefs who are also beginning to make their own charcuterie. In Three Hares’ case, they are a tapping into a largely unknown UK curing heritage. “Curing mutton in salt, sugar and spices and serving it with capers was very traditional in Britain,” says Matsunaga.

Despite all this optimism, the British charcuterie industry is still tiny, and vulnerable. For one, Swift is unconvinced by the Brexit bounce theory. British producers, he argues, are currently holding their prices while the cost of imported raw materials, from animal feed to sausage casings, has gone up 20%. That cannot hold. Future trade tariffs or patriotic “buy British” surges may help British charcuterie, but he is sceptical. And worried about how future farming subsidies, by favouring huge industrial farms, may finally destroy traditional British family farming: “That’s my major Brexit area of pain.”.

From its inception, British charcuterie was a proactive rejection of global industrial food production. It allowed farmers to diversify sustainably, maintain slow-growing, rare-breed animals and it necessitated ethical husbandry. “Farmers have two options,” says Cannon. “Produce meat cheaply for supermarkets. Or make something delicious and premium. I saw how [farmers] were keeping their animals alive longer and feeding them better to make sure the fat had the right density. I was sold.”

Whatever happens post-Brexit, that will remain true. The best British charcuterie is hugely complex in its flavours, but, more than that, each mouthful is a tiny blow against the bland homogeneity of factory-farmed food. That will always taste good.

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