Curing in Cumbria: Woodall’s Charcuterie

Curing in Cumbria: Woodall’s Charcuterie

by Tom Shingler 11 May 2016

We associate salamis and air-dried hams with the continent, but it's a little known fact that British farmhouses were making their own back in the eighteenth century. Tom Shingler talks to Colin Woodall to find out how his company single-handedly kept this tradition alive.

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Tom Shingler is the editor of Great British Chefs.

Tom Shingler is the editor of Great British Chefs.

Salami Milano, prosciutto, saucisson sec – all words which roll off the tongue and make the mouth water. The UK has developed quite a taste for charcuterie over the years, happily tucking into packets of Parma ham and ogling the various meats hanging from French market stalls. But it’s only in the past ten years or so that we’ve started to produce charcuterie on our own soil, rather than importing it from the continent. Or is it?

Colin Woodall is a master curer at Woodall’s Charcuterie – a company that has been in his family for eight generations. Based in Cumbria, a county that’s a world away from the sunny climes of France, Spain and Italy, he makes delicacies like Cumberland Salami and air-dried Cumbrian Ham. Of course, he isn’t the only one making charcuterie in Britain today. But he is the only one who can trace back the recipes, methods and techniques he uses to his Cumbrian ancestors nearly 200 years ago.

‘In the eighteenth century, every rural household in Cumbria kept a pig,’ explains Colin. ‘When October came around and the pig had been nicely fattened up, it would be killed and every part of the carcass turned into food that could be kept at room temperature for a long period of time. People would make brawn out of the brains, boil the tongues – nothing was left to waste.

‘Woodall’s was started by my great, great, great, great, great grandmother in 1828,’ he continues. ‘She was widowed at an early age after her husband died on on his way home from church one Sunday morning and she was left with five young kids. Of course back then there was no welfare system, so she began to process other farms’ pigs to make a living. This grew and grew until they eventually built a dedicated building at home to meet demand. Every Monday morning in the winter there would be a line of carts outside her door with a pig in the back.’

Pork joints
The pork is cured whole as joints over months in a controlled environment which removes the moisture and cures the meat
Salami slices
It is then thinly sliced and ready to eat without the need for cooking – just like continental charcuterie

Preserving tradition

With no refrigeration or way of keeping pork fresh for more than a couple of weeks, preserving was vital for any rural family who didn’t want to starve over the winter. This meant salting the meat to create sausages and bacon as we know them today, but this would still only keep the pork edible for a few extra weeks – more was needed to keep farmers going until spring.

‘People think we have no tradition or history of making charcuterie in this country, but in fact it was commonplace – you just have to go back far enough in time to find it,’ says Colin. ‘The pigs were very large and fat when they were killed, so the hams were these huge, salted things that would be hung from the kitchen ceiling, and a piece would be cut off and cooked as needed. As the months went by, what remained of these hunks of meat would become drier and drier until it was too dry and tough to eat cooked. The only thing left to do was to shave off small pieces and eat the meat in little slivers, in the same way we’d eat Parma ham today. The same thing happened with bacon and sausages – at first, they’d be cooked as normal, then cooks would start boiling the meat to rehydrate it, and eventually they’d resemble something like pancetta or salami.’

The way Colin describes this tradition of producing air-dried meats makes it sound commonplace – so why wasn’t Britain as well known for these products as continental countries? ‘In the middle of the nineteenth century, the industrial revolution came about very quickly and people moved en masse from the countryside into towns to start working at the factories,’ he explains. ‘This meant many rural traditions were lost in the UK which continued to thrive in mainland Europe, where that exodus from country to city wasn’t quite as sudden.’ In fact, the recipes and techniques were almost lost entirely – at one point, Woodall’s was the only company that continued to produce charcuterie in the UK as the industrial revolution engulfed the nation.

Colin Woodall
Colin is the eighth generation of his family to produce Woodall's Charcuterie
Cured meats
His products are favoured by chefs and home cooks alike to be eaten as is or incorporated into recipes

Local hero

There was a reason Cumbria was a hotspot for British charcuterie back in the eighteenth century – the legendary Cumberland sausage. It was made then in the same way we see it now; in a single, long coil with heavily spiced meat and no rusk or other ingredients to bulk it out. This meant it was one of the only British sausages that could become fully air-dried without spoiling. ‘The large amount of salt and spices in the meat would act as a cure while it was hung over the winter,’ explains Colin, ‘and rusk – which would quickly turn sour – wasn’t included, so it could be hung indefinitely. Finally, because it was always made into one long sausage instead of a row of links, everything would dry evenly.’

Cumberland (a traditional county which is now part of Cumbria) was home to several ingredients which, while not uniquely Cumbrian, were almost exclusive to the area. In the middle of the eighteenth century, Whitehaven – which is just up the road from Woodall’s – was one of the biggest ports in the UK, so any exotic spices being imported into the country would arrive in Cumberland before anywhere else. This gave birth to things like rum butter and Grasmere gingerbread, but also the Cumberland sausage, which made the most of spices like black and white pepper, mace, pimento and cayenne. These are all ingredients Colin continues to use in his recipes, some of which he has collected from other parts of the UK.

‘The recipe for our Royale Ham actually comes from Suffolk, which was where my grandmother lived,’ he says. ‘It was first documented in 1843 and contains things like beer, treacle, vinegar and brown sugar in the cure. It’s a totally unique product and you won’t find charcuterie like it anywhere else in the world.’

Royale Ham
The recipe for Woodall's Royale Ham comes from Cumbria, where Colin's grandmother lived
Hanging salamis
The British taste for charcuterie grew through travel, when people would see salamis hanging in shop windows on the continent

Curing culture

Nowadays, Woodall’s Charcuterie is stocked in delis across the UK, its products immensely popular with those seeking something locally-produced and full of flavour. But it wasn’t always as easy to get people to try something that they hadn’t come across before. ‘For many years we were the only company keeping the traditions of British charcuterie alive,’ explains Colin. ‘We only started to push it as a specific, artisan product in the 1980s, where we’d go to local country shows and offer people air-dried ham. They looked at us as if we were mad, because they just hadn’t come across charcuterie – British or otherwise – before. Of course, nowadays people are much more travelled and have seen similar things while on holiday on the continent, but we put a lot of time and effort into trying to educate people about what we were making and why we were doing it.

‘Interest has grown massively over the past ten years or so, and there are several small companies now making charcuterie in the UK,’ he continues. ‘But I think what sets us apart from the others is that they’re trying to recreate continental products here in Britain, whereas we are making true British charcuterie with a rich heritage. The recipes we’re following now were being used in Cumbria 180 years ago.’ It’s this, combined with Colin’s expert knowledge, that has made Woodall’s the success it is today, but what’s more admirable is his family’s dedication to keeping the spirit of British charcuterie alive over the years. Just like the artisan cheesemakers and wine producers of the UK today, Britain is proving it can hold its own against the continental countries normally associated with fine food – it just took us all a little longer to realise it.

I think what sets us apart from the others is that they’re trying to recreate continental products here in Britain, whereas we are making true British charcuterie with a rich heritage. The recipes we’re following now were being used in Cumbria 180 years ago.

Colin Woodall