Last Saturday morning I drove to the village of Wrington in Somerset with my Dad to participate in a charcuterie making course with the Somerset Charcuterie company. After a little mix up of where to meet, we joined a group of two instructors and seven other students in a classroom set up with six small kitchens. We spent a few minutes over coffee and cakes chatting about how Somerset Charcuterie had come into business, and the challenges of producing world class cured meats in the British climate. Like many such small food companies, Somerset Charcuterie started very informally with two friends – James and Andy – with a shared passion for curing meats, and has grown into a highly successful operation supplying meats to some of Britain’s top chefs and restaurants.
As implied by the name, charcuterie is a food culture that really developed in continental Europe, with France, Italy, and Spain being the leading inspiration for many of the processes that we would be learning about on the course. Further afield, jerky and biltong are other ways of drying and preserving meats that take advantage of climates far warmer and drier than Somerset. It’s interesting to note that there isn’t a strong tradition of curing meats in England, and despite what some books claim James and Andy both put this down to the climate. For curing and drying to work well, the ideal climatic conditions are more like southern Spain than northern Somerset. A willingness to experiment, however, can go a long way. With a strong tradition of quality meats and a burgeoning food culture, South West England does have some of the most important factors in place for building a successful charcuteries company.
We spent most of the morning with Andy learning how to butcher a pig. They’d bought three sides of pig: one to demonstrate and two to practice on. Watching a skilled butcher at work is a fascinating experience, and it’s really interesting to see where the different cuts of meat come from. As they’d warned us over coffee, the process of making charcuterie only requires certain cuts of meat and leads to quite a bit of waste. Curing and fermenting alone cannot render edible some of the tougher muscles, or make use of the flakier internal fats and organs, so these had to be discarded. But despite what they’d told us about waste, most of the meat does get put to use, starting with the pig’s cheeks (which were much bigger than I imagined). Essentially the process broke the pig down into three pieces and then took out the cuts that would be used for charcuterie making. It was interesting to see how some of the muscles could really just be rolled or pulled off, with the theory of making gravity work to your advantage. It would take a lot more practice for me to learn even the most basic butchering skills, and this could be one of those tasks best left to the experts. But it was educational just to watch it being done.
After we’d chopped up the pig it was time to start curing the appropriate cuts. These included the tenderloin for filleto and the belly for pancetta. The premium cut is Culatello from the hind legs, which we learned is only of good enough quality in approximately 10% of the pigs. The curing process starts by salting the meats and adding toasted pepper, toasted fennel, and pounded juniper berries. These are put into plastic bags and left in the fridge for several days before being rinsed carefully and hung out to dry – often for several months or more. The aim is to lose about 30% of the original weight, after which point you can tell that it should be safe to eat.
After the butchering and curing preparation we sat down to a lunch or charcuterie, cheese, bread, and cider. When it was all laid out like this it’s easy to see what a wonderful food culture the South West of England has. The fact that they use a lot of local cheeses and ciders in the actual making of the cured meats gave the whole meal a sense of coherence. I enjoyed an Old Jollop cider from Wedmore and an Orchard Pig from Glastonbury. The conversation about curing meats and the different influences continued, and we learned how autumn and spring are the best times of year for curing meats in this part of the world when the humidity and temperature are generally at their best. We also discussed the importance of airflow in the drying process, with lack of fresh air being the biggest cause of spoilage.
After lunch we moved into the salami and chorizo making. The meat (roughly 80%) and fat (20%) for these fermented meats comes from various different parts of the pig. The fat mostly comes from the back, where it is smooth and shiny (rather than white and flaky as in the case of most of the internal fats). The meat and fat are roughly ground in a meat grinder along with yeast like starter, salt, chili powder, smoked paprika, and cayenne pepper (for the salami). An additional ingredient is a commercial preservative, which is thought to be carcinogenic, and we had a short chat about the health risks involved, and the potential for exaggeration. The ground material is thoroughly mixed again, and then stuffed into natural sausage casings using a wonderful machine that pushes out the meat. The filled casings are also then hung for several weeks to mature. The really interesting thing about salamis and chorizos is that they’re fermented in much the same way as sourdough bread or sourkraut, effectively using the fermentation process to act as a preservative in addition to the drying.
The salami and chorizo making also involved a tour of the production factory. At the moment the scale of operation is quite small, but they’re in the process of moving to a larger production facility nearby. It was reassuring to learn that when they started somebody’s full time job was to take the mould off the hanging meats and salamis, but now that they’ve improved the airflow it has gone down to a part time position. The smell in the drying room was wonderful, and we chatted a little more about the optimal conditions for doing this at home.
Curing meats and making salamis is not one of the most obvious things you might wake up and say “I’m going to try doing this today.” So going on a charcuterie making course is a great way to get started. I’m not sure how much I’ll make use of some of the practical tips from the class, but it was certainly fascinating to learn about the process and think about how a continental culture of drying and fermenting meats is being adapted to the Somerset context. Perhaps more than anything the course offered a great reminder of what an exciting and innovative food culture we have in the local region, and I’m looking forward to learning more about it in the months and years ahead.