Miracle Cures: Three Chefs and their Charcuterie

Kitchen cures: British chefs and charcuterie

by Isaac Parham 11 May 2015

Isaac Parham talks to three of Britain's top chefs leading the charge for home-cured British charcuterie, and asks the question of whether we can ever catch up with our continental neighbours . . .

Isaac Parham is a freelance food writer and editor from South London. When not browsing Borough market or watching his beloved Portsmouth FC, you'll find him travelling the country to find the nation's best food.

Isaac Parham is a freelance food writer and editor from South London. When not browsing Borough market or watching his beloved Portsmouth FC, you'll find him travelling the country to find the nation's best food.

You can learn a lot about a culture by the words it has appropriated and the words that are its own. So, as food writer Tim Hayward once pointed out on a Radio 4 documentary, it is perhaps revealing to note that the catch-all term we use for preserved meat products is French in derivation: charcuterie.

This should not be wholly surprising – after all, Britain has no real history of preserving meat beyond salting beef and pork for long naval expeditions overseas (with almost inedible results). There are no traditionally British versions of, say, coppa or chorizo, saucisson or speck, despite us being happy enough to eat all of them.

But all that could be starting to change, with chefs at the forefront of a movement reclaiming artisanal practises like curing, pickling and smoking for their own. We spoke to three pioneers of British charcuterie to gain an insight into this darkest of arts and discover some of the extreme lengths they are going to to put British charcuterie on the map.

Chapter One’s Andy McLeish is not inclined to do things by half – he shoots and butchers much of the meat that is served at the restaurant and takes pride in his rigorous sourcing standards. But even he had not considered making his own charcuterie until a recent wild boar hunting trip in Germany.

'My philosophy on shooting is that whatever I shoot I have to eat,' he explains. '(In Germany) we stayed with a hunter who was also an amazing cook. There were boilers in his garage and he had some great salamis ranging from six month old firm salamis to salamis that had only been made for a couple of weeks. That was what really got me interested in charcuterie. So when we finally shot the boar we used parts like the shoulders for cooking stews, the two back legs we cured and turned into Serrano ham-style legs and the trim we used for salami and sausages.'

After somehow managing to get his wild boar salami back into the country, Andy took the meat back home and finished the intricate process in his basement – much to his wife’s delight.

'I don’t think we achieved the Pata Negra quality,' he laments. 'After all, that is hung for eighteen months to two years whereas we only hung ours for eight months. I want to do it again, though, and hang it for a good fourteen or fifteen months. My wife hated leaving it in the cellar for eight months with a fan blowing on it but it works well.'

While he has not yet served his own salami at the restaurant, the chef plans to pair his next batch (provided he can get his wife’s approval) with burrata to make a lovely summery starter.

So does he think that making your own charcuterie will catch on in domestic kitchens?

'I don’t know if it will catch on in the home; maybe it will. You’ve got to be very committed to want to try it out.'

When Luke Holder was installed as head chef at Lime Wood in 2010, he discovered a small brick outhouse sitting on its expansive grounds. For most this would not be worthy of a second thought, but Luke immediately realised its potential to be used as a working smokehouse for charcuterie.

These days, the smokehouse is home to dozens of hanging meats at different points of maturity. All of the products will eventually make it onto the blue china plates at the hotel’s Italian themed Hartnett, Holder and Co. restaurant, served with a selection of pickles.

Luke Holder
The Lime Wood Smokehouse

'There is a team of about four guys and the only prerequisite is that they have done their level three food safety and hygiene training,' he explains. 'We do a 200kg pig once a month: the kitchen downstairs is cleaned and sterilised, the boys are rota-ed on, and it usually takes us six to eight hours to convert the whole thing into charcuterie items.'

Recently he has expanded his repertoire to include venison and, interestingly, goat, which he finds 'lends itself very well to being cured', and uses to make 'a very beautiful, deep, burgundy-coloured salami spiced with rosemary.'

Luke believes that a solid understanding of the scientific principles behind fermenting meat is necessary before trying to do it out for yourself, explaining how he has used his own understanding of mould growth to create the perfect environment in which to hang the meat.

'In the smokehouse, over the years, we have developed the right type of mould and spores in the wood and we never really have the smokehouse empty. So there are all these salamis passing on the mould to the next batch. What we are essentially doing is trying to convert the dextrose (sugars) into lactic acids and that process is represented by mould growth.'

He is stumped, though, as to why Britain is so far behind the rest of Europe.

'It’s ironic we haven’t had a bigger charcuterie production in this country. Especially since legend has it that the Romans got the idea for dry-cured ham from Wales. We held meetings here with the local pork farmers to encourage them to go into charcuterie because it’s the preservation of meats and it adds better pound value to each pound of pork you produce.'

Perhaps we can learn from countries like France and Italy to inform our own versions?

'I’m not entirely sure. When we’ve been to Italy to have a look around it’s been a bit of a guarded secret what the exact recipes were!'

Ben Dulley, head chef at Emily WatkinsThe Kingham Plough, used to hold down a job in IT, but is now another chef for whom charcuterie has become more than a hobby. Under his expert guidance, the Oxfordshire pub now serve their own in-house venison salami and Ben is intent on stepping up their output further.

'I hope to keep playing with it and take it as far as I can. Obviously first and foremost I’m a chef but whenever I can fit in the charcuterie I try to. My perfect meal would always include charcuterie so it’s one of the elements I need to be good at. With the salami we started with a really strong product and improved it from there… we’re hoping to enter it into the Great Taste Awards to prove how good it is.'

But developing charcuterie at Kingham has never been straightforward, as the chef explains.

'It’s always a bit of a challenge trying to get the space to do it properly; we’ve ended up adapting the spaces we’ve got. What I have to do when I want to make a batch of salami, which requires a couple of days of fermentation (high humidity and high temperature), is book out one of the annexe bedrooms at the B&B for three or four days and adapt it; get it up to temperature, get a humidifier in there and so on. Afterwards the housekeeper always shouts at me because the sheets and curtains smell of salami!'

'For the rest of the process we have a cellar which is perfect for the curing and drying stage. It’s the right temperature so I just have to play around with the air speed and humidity. We’ve only recently got the humidifier so the first few batches I was literally getting a pan of hot water several times a day, taking it down to the cellar and splashing it on the floor! I had my hydrometer and my thermometer hanging from the ceiling telling me when I got it right and I had to just keep going. That was quite hard work, a lot of time and effort went into getting those first batches right.'

After a few years of trial and error and research in the form of books such as Home Production of Quality Meats and Sausages by the Marianski brothers ('It explained the science behind it all, it was quite a hard read but the content of the book was incredible'), Ben is now keen to pass on his learnings to his staff.

'I can talk about this until the cows come home so if they want to ask me a question I’m happy to answer and they can learn as much from me as they want to. The other guys are happy to get involved and I think they are proud of the products that we are turning out.'

While Ben believes that charcuterie making is on the rise among chefs and suppliers, he doesn’t yet feel that British charcuterie has an identity of its own – developing a signature British cured sausage could be the final frontier, according to the chef.

'British charcuterie is something new and exciting,' he concludes. 'And I think we can take it to a place where the Europeans aren’t quite taking it yet.'