Somerset Charcuterie

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.

First Impressions on Food in Bristol

When I’ve told people that I’m moving to Bristol, the first response of several of them has been to tell me how good the food is here.  It’s got a “vibrant food culture,” “lots of independent food shops and restaurants,” “very fresh West Country ingredients.”  The guidebooks I’ve read about the city reinforce this impression, with praise for both the high-end restaurants such as Casamia, and the diversity and quality of the local food culture.  A couple of restaurant reviews in The Guardian have extolled the virtues of Bristol’s restaurant scene (one by Jay Rayner said that the best place for lunch in Cardiff is to get on the train to Bristol…), and the BBC Food Program (based in Bristol) regularly mentions the city.

So much for the reputation, but how good really is it?  My first impressions, after living here for three weeks are broadly positive, but with much more exploring and foraging needed.  One of my little traditions is to go for fish and chips the first night back in the country.  Unfortunately, I got back on a Monday night, and the fish and chip restaurant we went to (Salt and Malt) was closed, and we had to settle for a very tasty pie instead in the converted shipping container next door.  This Whapping Wharf location seems to have a lot of creative food options, and we went back for fish and chips and few days later, which were excellent.  The Bristol farmers market at St Nicholas market every Wednesday morning was a bit of a disappointment.  It had maybe ten stores, or which only two or three were selling fresh fruit and vegetables.  But with the exception of the salmon, the food we bought was generally very good.  It would seem like there’s a lot of potential for further developing the farmers market food culture even further.

The beer and cider have been good.  We had a Bibble IPA from the Wild Beer Company on Friday night, which was probably the closest we’ve had to a Colorado beer, but the Bristol Beer Company also seems quite good.  On my first night back we went to the Apple Cider Barge just across the river from our flat.  I’ll need to spend some more time sampling the local ciders before I know enough about them to make an informed judgement.  But first impressions are good.

We haven’t had a truly outstanding meal yet, either eating out or cooking at home.  But the food we’ve tried has generally been pretty good, with lots of options.  For example, for lunch yesterday we had a Middle Eastern wrap from a shop in St Nicholas Market, which was very tasty.  I’ve been impressed with The Source food shop and café, also in St Nicholas Market, and I’m hoping to attend some of their courses over the next few months.

It’s going to be fun exploring the history of food in what seems to be a very diverse culinary city!

Brooklyn Food Tour, (2 June 2017)

With one day in New York City, I decided to take a food tour of Brooklyn with The Brooklyn Tour.  We began at the Cornelia Street Café in Greenwich Village, and took a bus across the Williamsburg Bridge to Brooklyn.  Beginning in the Williamsburg neighborhood, we drove through a Hasidic Jewish community and discussed their food culture, but didn’t stop.  In another part of the neighborhood we learned that Hipsters are moving in and rapidly changing the food culture with scores of new, trendy restaurants.  Our tastings began at The Meatball Shop, where we all ate a meatball.  This was presented as an example of a successful Hipster restaurant, focusing on a central theme with good food and keeping things friendly and accessible.  We then crossed the road and ate falafel (and poppy seed sauce) at the Oasis Mediterranean restaurant.  This had been freshly fried and was very tasty.  Back on the bus we continued to the Greenpoint neighborhood where we passed a Heath Ledger tribute restaurant and at Polish food at the Krolweskie Jadlo (King’s Feast) restaurant.  This was a great place with pictures of Polish kings painted on the walls, complete with axes and other medieval military paraphernalia.  We ate beet salad, cabbage salad, Polish sausage (Kielbasa sausage), Pierogies, mashed potatoes, and apple crepes.  From here we drove to Table 87 coal fired pizza restaurant in the Gowanus region of Brooklyn for Margherita Pizza and a pint of Brooklyn beer.  It was a very simple pizza with rectangular slices of mozzarella cheese, Pomodoro (?) tomatoes, and then olive oil and wilted basil leave added after the pizza has left the oven.  The coal fire is an interesting (and apparently quite expensive) concept, and the pizza had less of a smoky flavor than a wood fired pizza.  The pizzas are Neapolitan style – thin and little sauce.  After pizza we headed to the F. Monteleone Bakery in Carroll Gardens for a cannoli for dessert.  The tour fished under Brooklyn Bridge in the DUMBO neighborhood for chocolate at Jaques Torres.

The narrative of the food tour was about different ethnic groups bringing their food culture with them to New York City.  There is both a dynamism to this story and a conservatism.  Neighborhoods change as different groups move in and out (largely connected to economics).  But immigrant communities also try to protect their culture by continuing to cook traditional food – the Monteleone bakery, for example, was as traditional as anything you would find in Italy.  This seems to have come full circle, as the traditional becomes trendy.  I asked about recent food trends in NYC, and Rick the tour guide said that its avocado on toast, poké (tuna and rice), and BBQ.  Newness sells, but doesn’t necessarily last very long.  New York is definitely a place to come back to and eat some more!

Food History – Semester at Sea

I’ve just finished teaching a food history class with semester at sea.  It was a good experience, although also a lot of work.  I didn’t get a chance to post to this blog as I had hoped, but I’m planning to write some short blog posts about my experiences over the next few months (most likely when I get back from Antarctica).

Global Food History

I teach environmental history at Colorado State University.  In Fall 2016 I’ll be teaching on board the Semester at Sea voyage from Europe to Latin America.  One of the classes I’ll be teaching is “Food: A Global Environmental History.”  This blog will help me to prepare for this class and offer a place to share my experiences of thinking about food history as we travel around the world.